Bombs make way for 'burbs

A booming city eyes a silent bombing range

 

DENVER, Colo. - Larry Buzick has an aerial photograph of the Lowry Bombing Range in his office at the Colorado State Land Board, and the bird's-eye view of the 26,000-acre property in Arapahoe County reveals open prairies and cottonwood-filled drainages. But these days, Buzick and his co-workers at the land board don't see a prairie. They see a gold mine: a new city on the edge of the booming Denver metro area.

The property may be the largest undeveloped parcel of land left in the Denver area. From 1937 through 1961, the Lowry range was used by the Army as a practice bombing range for planes and artillery.

Between 1964 and 1991, the State Land Board acquired part of the land through three federal land exchanges. While the Army Corps of Engineers still has up to eight years of environmental cleanup to do, the State Land Board sees a rosy future starting in 2008.

"The Lowry Bombing Range is such a valuable parcel that the board has to look at long-term development," says the board's Kate Jones. "We have to get value for it."

Not your grandmother's land

Getting value is the State Land Board's job. Established in 1876, the board earns money for the state's public schools by maximizing revenues from the 3 million acres of state trust lands. In the fiscal year 1997-98, it brought in $36.2 million. But the Lowry property earns only $400,000 each year, mostly from leases to a sand and gravel company and a riding and hunting club. It is a part of the state-run Stewardship Trust, which protects state land as open space.

The board thought it should be making more from the Lowry property, so it commissioned a University of Colorado Real Estate Center panel to come up with some alternatives to leasing the land. The panel suggested several options. The land board could sell the land to a private or public land conservation organization. Or, the board could take the land out of the Stewardship Trust and open the door to a large-scale mixed residential and commercial development, accommodating anywhere from 57,577 to 120,175 residents.

"We basically said to the panel, 'Pretend this is your grandmother's land,' and of course, we found that there is no single answer with what to do with it," says Buzick, manager of the real estate section of the land board.

Any of the three development scenarios presented by the center would make grandma an overnight multimillionaire. But while large-scale development would do most to boost the amount of State Land Board money going to public education, some officials in nearby cities would rather see the land remain open space.

One of Lowry's concerned neighbors is the Cherry Creek School District. The school district stands to benefit from development of the property, but Tustin Amole, public information officer for the district, says open space is more important. "We are seeing phenomenal growth in the southeastern part of our district area, and if that land is developed, it will add to that growth," he says. "Certainly, we will accommodate that growth, but we urge that it be preserved as open space simply because in the metro area, it is a shrinking resource."

Open space is becoming an endangered species along the Front Range, with thousands of people moving to a state that averages 300 sunny days per year. Every hour, the state loses 10 acres of agricultural land to housing, shopping malls, roads and other uses, according to Colorado Department of Agriculture figures.

Military properties like Lowry and Rocky Flats (HCN, 1/15/01: Hot Property: A former nuclear bomb factory gets caught in suburban turf wars) are fast becoming attractive development sites.

But officials in nearby Aurora, such as Linda Strand of Aurora's Parks Department, would rather see the land managed by a public land conservation organization. "We were part of the nominating board that nominated that piece of property to the (state-run) Stewardship Trust," Strand says firmly. "We think it's an important piece of open space and we oppose their proposal to put a city in there."

A cash cow

The Lowry property could become yet another Front Range mega-development, but it may face more daunting obstacles like the one placed in front of it this November: The Responsible Growth Initiative, also known as Amendment 24 (HCN, 10/23/00: Colorado's growth amendment rouses voters), which was decisively voted down in the November election.

The proposal would have required large cities and counties to prepare maps of future development and submit these maps to local voters for approval. Along with scores of other builders who feared the amendment's passage, the State Land Board filed a preliminary developmental application on Sept. 12. Plans submitted on or after Sept. 13, 2000, would have been subject to voter approval had the amendment passed.

Even though the anti-growth initiative was defeated by a 2-1 margin, the debate brought attention to growth in Colorado. Forty-four growth-related bills will be introduced by Colorado legislators this year, and they're a mixed bag for would-be Lowry developers.

One such bill, proposed by Republican Rep. Joe Stengel of Littleton, could be good news for Lowry officials, since it would require communities with large companies to create a certain amount of housing per job created. But another proposed bill, HB 1165, would implement many of the measures proposed in Amendment 24.

In response to concerns about the development plans, the board has begun a series of meetings with local government officials. Buzick says the board has not made any decisions on the property, but the preliminary development application submitted in September will keep the board's options open. And while the board understands that not all of its Lowry neighbors support developing the property, it feels it can't afford to let its cash cow wallow in undeveloped pasture too much longer.

"A lot of local governments would rather keep it as open space, and if they want to pay us market value for it, great," said Buzick. "But the board's mission is not to provide free open space."

Victoria Peglar is a freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colorado.

You can contact ...

  • Kate Jones, Colorado State Land Board, 303/866-3454 ext. 320, or Larry Buzick, real estate section manager, ext. 304;
  • Arapahoe County Comprehensive Plan Update Manager Sue Conaway, 303/795-4452.

Copyright 2001 HCN and Victoria Peglar