Despite flood concerns, Boulder moving toward a CU South annexation
The Daily Camera
Any potential development of the 308-acre CU Boulder South parcel is still years away, but to the delight of the university and the dismay of those concerned about flood risk on the property, it's inching closer to fruition.
Earlier this week, members of the Boulder City Council and Planning Board gave city staff the go-ahead to draft proposed changes that would redesignate the allowable land uses on the site.
The move was made by the two bodies, via 13 yes votes and two "maybe" votes from Councilwoman Lisa Morzel and Planning Board member Liz Payton, in the context of the continuing 5-year update to the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan.
The comp plan, as it's more commonly referred to, is a broad map of the community's future, and dictates where various land uses can and can't occur, and at what levels.
While the vote taken this week was less an official action than an offer of direction to staff, it is significant because once the comp plan is finalized — that's expected to happen in May, after multiple public hearings — the University of Colorado and the city can enter into talks about annexing the CU South site, which sits south of Table Mesa Drive and west of U.S. 36.
"We obviously have to get down to brass tacks with the city in terms of an annexation agreement," said Frances Draper, vice chancellor for strategic relations at CU. "I think it's very doable. We just need to get to that step."
The agreement, in principle, would see Boulder allow the university to build on a portion of the site, benefitting from city utility services. CU, in exchange, would allow the construction of a berm on the northeast side of the property to prevent the flooding of the nearby highway and homes.
It seems likely the agreement would also involve some commitment from CU to provide housing for some of the university's faculty and students who, like many others, struggle to afford Boulder and must commute in from cheaper places.
One problem with this plan, in the eyes of many neighbors who watched the 2013 flood hit parts of south Boulder as hard as anywhere in the city, is that the proposed flood mitigation project calls for protection in the event of what's considered a 100-year flood event.
Many feel a three-story berm — some are calling it a high-hazard dam — should guard against a more significant flood.
"The city has not done a detailed analysis of different flood control options, such as a smaller berm and series of levees, that might be constructed more quickly and at less cost less, and still be effective," said Harlin Savage, a member of the citizen group Save SoBo Now and, incidentally, a colleague of Mayor Suzanne Jones at EcoCycle.
"Nor has the city looked at what might be needed for anything more than a 100-year flood, which is becoming much more likely with climate change."
Ruth Wright, the former state representative from Boulder, articulated the concerns in a comment to the Planning Board: "Protect our citizens as they deserve," she said. "Don't lull them into complacency and a false sense of security, only to be stunned, shocked and damaged by the next big one."
Jeff Arthur, who directs utilities for Boulder's Public Works Department, said the flood preparations being discussed for CU South are in fact consistent with those being made elsewhere.
"We are on a pretty slow pace to even build 100-year mitigation," Arthur told the city's leaders. "We've been going through the process of updating maps and mitigation studies. We probably have 100 years worth of projects.
He acknowledged that "to some degree, recent experience has been moving to lower design form so we can actually move something forward."
Preparing for a flood level more significant than a 100-year event affords the city an "incrementally higher level of protection," Arthur said, but also costs more, takes longer and requires use of more of the CU South property.
What's known for now is that the land-use changes theoretically soon to be voted on would, according to city staff, involve different portions of the site being dedicated to development — and conservation, open space or recreation — in addition to the flood mitigation work.
The university says it will develop no more than 50 percent of the site, and has tentatively proposed using about 80 acres for flood mitigation, and another 80 acres for preservation of existing natural areas. Some additional acreage would likely feature trails, bikeways and public green areas, CU says.
Draper promised the university would not use the site to develop tower-style dormitories, a la Williams Village, nor football facilities and first-year student housing.
Noting that CU, as a state entity, is not subject to the same zoning and design guidelines as others who develop in the city, Councilman Sam Weaver asked Draper if the university has a sense of how tall potential buildings on the site might be.
She said there were no plans to speak of, regarding height, though she added, "We're open to discussing."
In a lengthy presentation to the council and Planning Board, Draper said continually that the university prefers to defer to the city on flood issues. At one point, Morzel posed a roughly six-minute question on that topic, to which Draper made clear in just a few words that CU doesn't want to be the decision-maker on flood risk, and would like to see the berm study, adopted by the council in 2015, moved forward.
"We've been discussing a flood mitigation plan for nigh on 15 years here," Draper said. "The city staff, with the help of some consultants, did an extensive job on this. FEMA relooked at all the plans. We've finally got a plan we can move forward with."
When pressed by Planning Board member Leonard May, though, as to whether the university would support flood mitigation work on the site even if the city decides ultimately not to annex, Draper was non-committal.
She said she'd be "surprised" to see an annexation agreement fall through, and focused on movement toward harmony between two institutions that as recently as 2003 had to discuss CU South in the company of a judge.
Draper said the university feels its relationship with the city is as good as ever, and Jones agreed.
While the university seems less than happy to discuss flood work if that work isn't coupled with development, Draper said it would be willing to accommodate a series of other city requests in the event of an annexation.
When Councilman Aaron Brockett asked if CU would guarantee housing on the site, and when Councilwoman Mary Young asked for a change in schedule for the public process, Draper said both could be done. In general, she suggested that the school's plans for the site aren't close to ready.
"I know there are some discussions that we must be talking about this in the dark of night, but we really haven't talked about it at all," Draper said.
Not all are convinced.
"There's a strong sentiment in the public that things are going to get really baked before they have an opportunity to participate in the public hearing," May said.
His concern was echoed by several on both the council and Planning Board.