Published 9/12/23 in the Longmont Leader and Longmont Times Call
Rights of nature
By Jake Matyas and Mary C Balzer
The Earth and its natural systems are nearing a point of no return, heading toward disastrous climate change, a significant die-off of wildlife due to habitat loss, and possibly the collapse of the food chain if insect pollinators, bats and birds continue to be killed at current rates. With drought becoming the norm, water is becoming ever scarcer — and water is the lifeblood of our existence here in the West.
The Boulder Creek Watershed forms the basis of all life in Boulder. Without the watershed maintaining its basic integrity, the forests, the animals, drinking water, and countless native ecosystems would all be at risk, especially considering the unpredictable forces of climate change.
Unfortunately, there is no indication that our current laws and policies will reverse the decline of the watershed’s health. That is because we treat it as mere property, which we exploit to the fullest extent possible without consideration of its inherent worth. For the watershed to survive, it must have a seat at the table. Nature must have a voice and must have representation when decisions are made about housing, other development, water usage, road construction, and other issues.
A community organization here in Boulder, Boulder Rights of Nature (BRON), along with partners such as Save the Colorado and Earth Law Center are proposing that we take a bold stand and try to protect the Boulder Creek Watershed by recognizing its legal rights through a local ordinance. Among the rights sought for Boulder Creek are rights to flow, to support essential functions within its ecosystems, maintain native biodiversity and exist free of pollution. The proposed ordinance would also establish an independent legal guardianship body that would defend those rights and advise local government on how to ensure Rights of Nature becomes part of the community decisionmaking.
Globally, Rights of Nature is recognized at some level of government in at least 14 other countries. It is becoming bread and butter law in Latin America, with many rivers and ecosystems being declared “subjects of rights.” In the United States, numerous Tribal Nations have recognized the Rights of Nature, including the Yurok’s recognition of the rights of the Klamath River and the Nez Perce Tribe’s recognition of the rights of the Snake River. Many other communities have acknowledged and started to implement Nature’s rights as well, including Santa Monica, California, and Orange County, Florida. Boulder can lead the way towards recognizing the rights of rivers in Colorado if Boulder Creek is protected in this way.
BRON and other local advocates are now meeting with local nonprofits, businesses, student groups, scientists, and community groups to build support for this initiative. Together, we can put Boulder on a pathway to protect its watershed for the future. Jake Matyas is an environmental policy intern at Earth Law Center and BRON. Mary C Balzer is a Board member of BRON. Jmatyas5@uoregon.edu or email@example.com
As organizer of Stand With Our St. Vrain Creek I wish to clarify our groups position on development which has lately been mischaracterized.
Stand supporters are concerned about the potential for development along St. Vrain Creek that may occur as a result flood mitigation work that will remove over 800 acres of land from the floodplain. 90% of all wildlife relies on riparian areas for survival. If we want to continue having the abundance of wildlife including birds, beavers, raptors, canines, reptiles, deer, wild turkeys and bobcats, along our Greenway and at Sandstone Ranch, we need to protect these areas from development that will cause harm if too close or inappropriate.
In addition to providing habitat and acting as a wildlife movement corridor, riparian areas filter pollutants and sediment, stabilize banks, and prevent downstream flooding. There have been 11 flood events in our city reach of the St. Vrain corridor since the late 1800s. Common sense dictates that even with the best possible mitigation efforts, there will likely be another major flood in our lifetime. The lesson from the 2013 flood should be to keep people and property out of harms way by setting development back from the river.
In August, 2018, City Council gave final approval to the first set of major updates to Longmont’s Land Development Code in 17 years. These new standards became effective in September. These did not include improvements to the Habitat and Species Protection section because staff was waiting for the Wildlife Management Plan update to be done to help inform the Code. City Planning was directed by Council to include several amendments and to develop a sustainability evaluation tool (SES) for appraising development applications using the triple bottom line; economy, environment and social equity. The Planning Department is expected to present these amendments and the new tool to City Council later this summer. The Wildlife Management Plan Update is also being finalized and should be done and approved by City Council in July.
Last October, Stand With Our St. Vrain Creek presented City Council members with 750 postcards and 520 signatures from residents which stated: We, the undersigned, urge Longmont Mayor Brian Bagley and City Council members to protect Longmont’s sensitive and important riparian areas from the intrusion of damaging urban development. Specifically, we want any/all considerations for development in proximity to the St. Vrain Creek corridor to be “put on hold” until the following are in place: 1) FEMA approves new flood plain maps 2) Resilient St. Vrain Project Plans – and funding are in place; 3) The Land Development Code Update is completed for the sections concerning Riparian Protection and Wildlife Management.
Eight months later although none of those 3 common-sense provisions have been realized, development applications are being submitted and processed along our St. Vrain greenway. These applications fall under the current code that is lacking in the essential riparian protections that Council will soon be reviewing. For this reason Stand with Our St Vrain Creek recommended Council enact a Time Out now on any/all development or redevelopment applications along our St. Vrain Greenway until the Code amendments and SES tool are established. Ideally, this time-out should extend until such time as FEMA approves new flood plain maps and the Resilient St. Vrain flood mitigation project is completed, but we realize that’s highly unlikely. Enacting the Code updates and approving the SES tool is the best way to insure that any development along this corridor and near other sensitive areas is done right.
According to our city manager these important standards and practice policy improvements should be in place early this Fall. Therefore, a time-out would be short and productive; giving staff a chance to catch their breath and devote full attention to completing the code and SES for Council’s approval. A time-out is a 5-way win: 1) Win for city planning staff to catch up; 2) Win for our creek’s health to continue to recover and be protected from future harm; 3) Win for taxpayers return on our $150 million investment for flood mitigation; 4) Win for the public who value wildlife; and 5) Win for developers who will have better guidelines to improve their proposals.
The results of Longmont’s 2018 Customer Satisfaction Survey found 74% of residents rated “Protecting nature areas from development” as “very important.” Stand With Our St. Vrain Creek simply suggested City Council be proactive to allow good policy to catch up to and inform good development before it’s too late.
Submitted by Shari Malloy, Retired special education teacher and member of Stand With Our St. Vrain Creek
It is Stand with Our St. Vrain Creek’s opinion that the City’s Open Space monies should not be going to police downtown business areas, especially as this seems to be motivated by getting additional people to police the homeless. The City’s Open Space fund should not be raided when that money should go toward maintaining our open spaces.
Please consider attending tonight’s City Council meeting or sending in a comment to City Council and staff letting them know that we don’t want our Open Space tax dollars and lottery fund money to go to patrolling the downtown business district.
Longmont to assign park rangers to downtown duties
If You Go
What: Longmont City Council study session
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Civic Center council chambers
Longmont is preparing to assign park rangers to its downtown business district, according to the city staff and the Longmont Downtown Development Authority.
Expanding the size and responsibilities of Longmont’s current corps of park rangers — employees who now staff the city’s parks, greenways and open space properties — will “help ensure that everyone using our public spaces has a positive experience,” city staff and Downtown Development Authority officials wrote in a memo for Tuesday night’s city council study session.
Longmont Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Kimberlee McKee on Thursday said the move could include adapting park curfews to apply them to the downtown plazas and breezeways.
Under that approach, people could use the breezeways to walk back and forth between Main Street and the parking lots behind Main anytime during the day or night, but between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. people would not be allowed to gather or loiter in those breezeways or plazas, McKee said.
Versions of Longmont’s noise ordinance and its anti-littering and trash-disposal regulations also could be applied to individuals and groups using those public spaces, she said, as part of a goal of “keeping the downtown a safe and comfortable place” for people working in or visiting the area.
“We absolutely want people to use these places. We just want to make sure they’re safe and inviting,” McKee said.
The Downtown Development Authority and city staff in their memo to council suggested the additional rangers also would be responsible for Roosevelt Park at 700 Longs Peak Ave., Thompson Park at 420 Bross St. and Collyer Park at 619 Collyer St.
Longmont is hiring three people who will serve “during the warm season,” downtown and in those downtown-area parks, according to that memo.
The new rangers “will have additional training and a strong tie to police services” and “will focus on education, compliance and enforcement of relevant ordinances in addition to having a wealth of information about natural resources and downtown amenities.
“If they encounter people who need help, they will be able to connect them to those services as well,” city and Downtown Development Authority officials stated in the memo.
“With the goal of keeping downtown clean safe and vibrant, collaborative discussions took place around public lands” between the Development Authority and a Safe and Welcoming Public Spaces internal city staff committee, according to the memo.
One of the recommendations from those discussions about “ensuring that public spaces stay clean and safe was to define and include breezeways and microplazas” in the Public Lands section of municipal code in order to set “rules and expectations” for downtown public spaces, the Development Authority and city staff reported.
The city and Development Authority staffs plan to bring an ordinance to the council, “in the coming weeks,” that would apply many of the public lands code rules to breezeways and microplazas.
The city also issued a Thursday night news release announcing the expanded-ranger program for downtown Longmont, calling it “an effort to provide more eyes and ears and a welcoming presence in Longmont’s public spaces.”
Pedestrian traffic to downtown restaurants and businesses have increased, and the area is an important entry point to the city’s trails and greenway system, said David Bell, the city’s natural resources manager.
“Increasingly, public spaces like plazas and breezeways in downtown are well used, serving as connections to parks and open spaces in other parts of the city,” Bell stated in the news release.
As Longmont expands its park ranger program into the downtown, “it makes sense” to apply many of the city’s rules about the uses of parks and greenways to the downtown’s plazas and breezeways, he said.
Last year, Longmont and the Downtown Development Authority shared in the costs of paying private security firm Trident Protection Group $29,440 to have “ambassadors” patrol parts of the downtown, downtown-area parks, and the city’s St. Vrain Greenway and Lefthand Greenway in June, July and August.
City staff in Thursday’s news release said that while that pilot program of using privately contracted ambassadors was “useful for understanding downtown needs and wants,” the Downtown Development Authority and the city “believe expansion of the city’s existing ranger program staffed by city employees, would better serve the area.”
Bell in a Friday interview and email said the decision to staff the downtown area with rangers, rather than using a security firm again, was based in part on the idea that it would be “a lot more beneficial to have individuals who work directly for the city,” rather than outsourcing the job.
“As the manager of the park rangers and the parks operations team, my commitment is to make sure that our parks are clean, safe and welcoming to all of our current users and assuring that we protect our natural, cultural and historic resources for future generations,” he said.
One of the three rangers will be a certified law enforcement officer, Bell said, and able to perform such functions as making arrests if needed. All three will be seasonal employees and not full-time throughout the year.
He said none of the three rangers has yet been hired but his goal is to have them hired, trained and on the job by mid-May.
The city’s news release said if council decides to apply some of Longmont’s public lands municipal code regulations to the downtown breezeways and plazas, “the new rangers would enforce these regulations and will also serve as goodwill ambassadors and deliver helpful services to business owners, patrons, and visitors.”
Longmont opportunity zone interest building as city leaders prep St. Vrain corridor, sugar factory as targets
Floodplain redraw could help investors avoid insurance costs; tax cut boosts feasibility of sugar site
Longmont officials are envisioning a redeveloped sugar factory and more uniform growth along the St. Vrain River, both made more realistic thanks to new federal tax incentives and a major city floodplain mitigation project.
City leaders hope to leverage two adjoining federal opportunity zones covering a large southern portion of Longmont as lures for what will be a costly repurposing of the sugar factory property in southeast Longmont, and, more broadly, for attracting new affordable and “work force” housing and commercial space to the St. Vrain’s course through the city.
The opportunity zone program was created by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It allows investors to put capital gains into development projects within designated census tracts, chosen for their relatively depressed economic status. The taxes on those initially invested capital gains, as well as gains made since on the real estate projects within the zones, get deferred after five years of keeping an interest in such properties, and the tax cut grows if the interest is held for seven years and grows again after 10 years.
For the site of the former and now fire-damaged Great Western sugar factory, the opportunity zone may ease the financial burden of either incorporating the long-standing structure into a new building or tearing it down. It could also help mitigate any costs associated with the potential need to remedy any soil or other contamination on the site caused by decades of industrial activity.
“I think the community at large would really like to see that sugar mill area turn into something that is a positive and welcoming modern gateway into our community,” Longmont Economic Development Partnership CEO Jessica Erickson said.
Sugar factory owner Dick Thomas in a brief interview said the opportunity zone provisions are just one of several financial vehicles being analyzed in talks to redevelop the land — he is engaged with several groups that have expressed interest in bringing modern mixed commercial and residential structures to the property. He said the range between $60 million and $100 million has been identified as an initial cost estimate for such a project.
Thomas hopes to assimilate what remains of the brick factory building into a redeveloped parcel.
“We’re not going to tear it down. Most of what’s there will remain,” he said, declining to further elaborate on redevelopment talks or to identify the investors with whom he is negotiating.
Redrawn floodplain negating insurance costs
Before the opportunity zone can most effectively aid financing development in several key areas along the river, the $120 million-plus Resilient St. Vrain project, which is rejigging the stream’s channel and floodplain through the city, needs to make more progress, and the resulting smaller floodplain will have to receive federal approval so development limitations in the areas purged of risk can be lifted.
“We were very intentional about focusing on areas of strong opportunity and that already had plans in place and broad public support to move development forward, but had some issues in attracting capital,” Erickson said. “The floodplain issues were part of that.”
Preliminary approval of redrawn floodplain maps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — which dictate which property owners have to buy flood insurance — is expected in July this year. Those new maps won’t take effect until three months after that when an appeal period expires, according to Longmont Floodplain Manager Monica Bortolini. If a legitimate appeal to the preliminary floodplain maps has to be evaluated, the timing of when the final maps would be issued is unknown, she said.
“The part of the opportunity zone that is subject to flooding in the near term is generally south of the rail tracks,” Longmont Redevelopment Program Manager Tony Chacon said. “The drainage improvements to be concluded this year will effectively pull some of the properties immediately adjacent to the creek out of the floodplain, and the remaining areas will see a reduction in the depth of the 100-year flooding condition.”
Of course, flood concerns throughout the rest of the opportunity zones are not impacting development proposals with plans to use the tax cut, according to city leaders.
Even those properties within the current floodplain can be engineered to work around the development regulations in the risky area, Chacon noted.
He added the requirement to purchase flood insurance — especially temporarily, as might be the case for land along the St. Vrain lifted from the floodplain by the Resilient St. Vrain work — can be the most pesky hurdle for developers examining building options for a property in a floodplain.
“In regards to these issues, our engineering and planning staff are working collectively and diligently to facilitate new development in the flood-prone areas,” Chacon said. “While I am sure some prospective developers may deem the floodplain an issue, I don’t see the floodplain issue being a significant deterrent to opportunity zone interest, as, in fact, the city is receiving continued developer inquiry and conversations.”
But talks with developers who could actually use the opportunity zone program beneficially remain secretive and prospective, including those involving attempts to sway Front Range Community College to establish a visible presence in downtown Longmont.
“I can tell you that no one has committed to any particular project yet or even entered into any level of detailed discussion or negotiation,” Chacon said. “We may have something to better share in a few months. I can say the general interest is in vertical mixed-use or residential development, primarily rental.”
Councilman Tim Waters is a part of a group of city and economic development leaders studying the potential offered by the opportunity zone for the St. Vrain River corridor, as well as the regulations that help keep the stream a gem of riparian habitat and natural beauty. An example of such a rule would be the like the 150-foot development setback from the river’s bank for which only city council can approve a variance.
“What exists along the river in San Antonio, that’s just not going to be the case” for the St. Vrain, Waters said. “We’re going to maintain our greenways, we’re going to maintain our riparian areas, our wildlife areas.”
The soon-to-be-finished Dickens Farm Nature Area park along the river south of Boston Avenue between Main and Martin streets will ensure an open space element remains along the St. Vrain River in central Longmont, and the green space could be a highlight for any new multifamily housing developments in the area to market to prospective tenants.
But Waters is also aware of discussions about Front Range Community College potentially moving from its southwest Longmont campus, or adding to its property portfolio in the city, in order to open up shop — possibly with another institutional partner that would offer additional higher education paths — closer to downtown.
“Front Range Community College is happy to be in Longmont, and we like our current location. We’re certainly always open to discussions of other possible partnership options in the community, and greatly appreciate the city’s interest in working with us to create an even better campus,” the school’s president, Andy Dorsey, stated through a spokeswoman. “We have had a very preliminary conversation with the city about this concept, but it’s way too early to suggest that we’ll be moving.”
Councilman: Academic assets would spur economic activity
Waters mentioned the city’s land holdings include a site just north of the river, southwest of South Main and Boston Avenue, that formerly hosted a mobile home park that was destroyed in the 2013 flood. It, along with several other city-owned parcels near the river south of downtown, could be packaged into a land assembly effort for a development project the city would be inclined to support, such as a Front Range or other higher education space that may be able to take advantage of the area’s opportunity zone status.
“We’re keenly interested in a more robust presence of higher education options here along with Front Range so that our kids could go as far as they want in terms of their educational pursuits without ever having to leave home or Longmont to do that,” Waters said, contending more local educational opportunity would lead to an unprecedented business climate for the city.
He believes if the opportunity zone attracts additional academic assets within Longmont, they could satisfy a need for a better educated work force that certain employers in the area have made known. Fostering greater talent locally, Waters explained, will allow businesses to recruit more from within the city instead of luring skilled labor from outside Boulder County and Colorado, atrend that has helped drive recent population growth in the state.
“We have the potential to create an economic engine that transcends the kind of economic development we have seen here before in Longmont,” Waters said.
Sam Lounsberry: 303-473-1322, firstname.lastname@example.org andtwitter.com/samlounz.
Thank you to everyone who came out to show their support for greater protections for St. Vrain Creek and our other Open Space and Natural Areas this past Tuesday! We made a big splash and were on the front page of the Times Call newspaper on Thursday, October 4.
Longmont City Council urged to pause development considerations along St. Vrain River corridor
Dozens of residents turned out at Tuesday’s Longmont City Council meeting to request a pause on development near the banks of the St. Vrain River.
Proponents for protecting the St. Vrain River from infringing construction dropped off 724 postcards to council members asking the 150-foot setback of development from the stream’s banks be maintained and enforced.
While that setback is in place, it was only in August that updates to the Land Development Code moved the authority to grant a variance to the 150-foot river buffer solely to City Council instead of the city’s planning director.
“We … urge Longmont Mayor Brian Bagley and City Council members to protect Longmont’s sensitive and important riparian areas from the intrusion of damaging urban development,” the petition reads.
It asks to pause building plans near the river until the Federal Emergency Management Agency approves new floodplain maps for the stream; until funding has been identified for the estimated $60 million in remaining unfunded costs of the Resilient St. Vrain project; and until a second phase of updates to the Land Development Code sections regarding riparian protection and wildlife management are completed.
Kat Bradley-Bennett, a Blue Mountain Circle resident, said the St. Vrain provides important habitat for migrating waterfowl.
“We have the opportunity to preserve this really rich wildlife habitat,” she said.
In a Wednesday interview, Left Hand Brewing’s owner contested the city’s ability to stop all development within the setback.
The Longmont-based brewery is designing conceptual plans for an event venue to host its nonprofit fundraisers, such as Oktoberfest, on land it owns east of its main brewery building on Boston Avenue next to the river.
Eric Wallace, its co-founder and president, said a halt on development near the river would have to be temporary and still allow for “legitimate consideration” of approval for building plans to avoid legal challenges.
“If council is considering each development request within the riparian setback and giving legitimate consideration, it shouldn’t have a big impact on (Left Hand’s plans),” Wallace said. “I don’t know (the city) can take all that land from people.”
However, city leaders have discussed possibly using city funds to buy the 150-foot setback from the St. Vrain along its corridor through the city, Longmont Land Program Administrator Dan Wolford said.
Timeline for petition requests
The three items petitioners want to happen before the city allows development along the St. Vrain River appear to have similar timelines. Although it is unknown when or if remaining funding Resilient St. Vrain project work will be secured, both the FEMA floodplain maps and the Land Development Code updates could be in place within a year.
Updated floodplain maps for the St. Vrain River have been sent to FEMA for review, according to the Longmont city website, and they likely will become effective in early 2019.
The second phase of Land Development Code updates, with changes to the riparian protection and wildlife management sections, is expected to come before council for approval in June 2019.
But the floodplain within the city could be altered again by ongoing Resilient St. Vrain work. That work aims to increase the river’s water capacity with the goal of keeping any future flooding from affecting as wide a swath of land as the 2013 flood.
Sam Lounsberry: 303-473-1322, email@example.com andtwitter.com/samlounz.
In her new book “The Nature Fix,” journalist Florence Williams documents scientists’ quest to understand how being outdoors affects our health.
So what’s behind the propensity for floods in Ellicott City? Part of the problem is its vulnerable location: the town lies at the foot of a hill where river branches meet the Patapsco River. And, of course, climate change makes storms wetter and increases the frequency of severe, record-breaking weather. But there’s another thing people are pointing out: concrete. When hard, impermeable concrete replaces absorbent green spaces, it’s much easier for floodwaters to overwhelm stormwater drainage.