Published 9/12/23 in the Longmont Leader and Longmont Times Call
Longmont City Council recently voted to make itself the deciding body on property development applications adjacent to Longmont public lands. This is an important step forward in honoring the environmental and conservation values of residents. The 2018 Longmont Open Space Survey found 74% of respondents rated “Protecting natural areas from development” as “very important.” Development proposals throughout the city are reviewed by City Planning staff before going to the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission for review/approval. P&Z is an appointed board and not elected by residents. Historically, City Council has had no say on any development plans and was only involved if a P&Z approved proposal was appealed. Appeals are very time-limited (30 days), cumbersome, and rare. Empowering City Council to be the final deciding body on proposals adjacent to our natural areas and parks will give residents a voice in the good stewardship of our public investments.
A recent development annexation application submitted to City Planning underscores why this ordinance is so critical. The proposed “Rivertown” development is on 20 acres along the south side of St. Vrain Creek just east of Roger’s Grove to Sunset Street. Roger’s Grove exists because Roger Jones selflessly donated 55 acres to the City for preservation when his wife died. He did this so Longmont residents might always have a place to connect with nature, to learn and to enjoy. There is nothing in the Dec. 2020 Rivertown annexation application that suggests any respect for this adjacent natural environment nor any regard for the environmental value of St. Vrain Creek. The proposed “high density” residential area of 380 units with restaurants and businesses is way too high for this sensitive area. Any development proposals should honor and enhance this special area–not exploit and overburden it.
I am a member of Stand With Our St. Vrain Creek, a growing group of community members who advocate for protecting our St. Vrain corridor and the wildlife that depend upon it from potentially damaging development. The Longmont reach of the St. Vrain has tremendous ecological value. Portions of the corridor are designated as critical wildlife habitat and have been identified as having immense aquatic conservation value to the State of Colorado due to the presence of rare, threatened native fish species. The proposed Rivertown development is in very close proximity to one of the only known nesting Bank Swallow colonies (a species of special concern) within Boulder County. The entire St. Vrain corridor is also a Stream Habitat Connector, which is how wildlife moves at night from one area to another. Evidence of wildlife movement includes the presence of mink and beaver at Golden Ponds and Sandstone Ranch, coyotes and foxes throughout the corridor, and bobcats and deer at Sandstone.
Many are concerned whether it is prudent to significantly develop along this corridor. The Army Corp of Engineers has identified 12 flood events along the St. Vrain in the last 120 years. Even with the best possible mitigation efforts, common sense dictates this corridor will flood again. Flooding is the third most common natural disaster. For the river not to respond to what’s happening with climate change would break the law of physics. We had 17 inches of rain in the span of 4 days in 2013, and extreme weather events across the world have only grown worse since then. Is it morally and fiscally responsible to knowingly put people and property in harm’s way and leave taxpayers on the hook to pay for flood recovery? Thus far, over Longmont staff estimates $400-500 million has been spent on flood recovery and mitigation. Due to this massive public investment and the additional public monies the Rivertown applicant intends to apply for in urban renewal dollars, the public’s voice and best interest deserve extra consideration. This holds true for all development proposals along our St. Vrain Greenway.
We are all learning how essential protecting the natural environment is to our survival. Again, any development proposals should honor and complement our St. Vrain Greenway and other natural areas—not exploit and overburden them.
Please attend the next advisory panel meeting for the so-called “Building STEAM” (STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, the arts, and maker spaces) initiative on September 13th from 9am to 12pm at the Longmont Museum in the Kaiser Classroom.
This advisory panel is planning the future of development along the St. Vrain corridor and it is very important that environmental voices are heard in this effort as most of the voices in the room prior to this have been businesses and developers. This next meeting will be a brainstorm session about the next steps in the process and what the City Council should consider as they move forward with the plan.
You can see the progress of the advisory panel online at: https://engage.longmontcolorado.gov/building-steam. The Main Street Corridor plan is progressing hand-in-hand with this and its progress can be found at: https://engage.longmontcolorado.gov/main-street-corridor-plan
Left Hand Brewing has formally submitted their application for their cultural event center. Here are the supporting documents (click on the pictures below to open and read).
While this application does not ask for a variance from the 150 foot conservation buffer along St. Vrain Creek, of particular concern are the noise levels measured by Left Hand’s consultant. Per typical concerts put on by Left Hand at Roosevelt Park, the decibel level at the back of the venue may average 95 DBA, though this level may fluctuate up and down.
Sound levels fall off the farther from the source you get. However, the consultant estimated that sound levels across the river to the south at the nearest homes could be as high as 77 DBA. For comparison, a concrete mixer 50 feet away has a DBA of 80, while a large dog barking 50 feet away has a DBA of 70.
Currently, Longmont has a noise ordinance in chapter 10.20.110 of the Longmont Municipal Code that prohibits noise levels higher than 55 DBA during the day and 50 DBA during the night in residential areas unless a special event permit has been issued. Because Longmont does not have any ordinances dealing with music events at designated venues, Left Hand will almost certainly be seeking to change the noise ordinance.
If anything about this application concerns you, please send your comments regarding the cultural event center application to City Planner Brien Schumacher. He can be contacted by calling (303) 651-8764 or by emailing Brien.Schumacher@longmontcolorado.gov. There will very likely NOT be a second neighborhood meeting.
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
Left Hand Brewing Company has been planning to build an event venue near St. Vrain Creek for some time and are now starting the application process. The application process’s first step is to hold a neighborhood meeting.
Previously seen plans for this event venue call for a hardscape amphitheatre that would encroach into the 150 riparian conservation buffer where, according to comments made by Left Hand’s owner during a Parks and Recreation Advisory Boart meeting last year, 3-5 events would be scheduled per week that could accommodate 1500-2000 people. Such events could include yoga, movies, concerts, etc.
St. Vrain Creek is a public amenity that benefits all residents of Longmont. Our tax money has gone to the Resilient St. Vrain Project to repair 2013 flood damage to the river and greenway and mitigate future flood damage. Therefore, ALL residents of Longmont should have a say in all development directly adjacent to St. Vrain Creek, including this planned development.
Please consider attending this meeting and speaking up not just for the health of our river and its wildlife, but also for those who live near Left Hand who could potentially be impacted by the additional lights, traffic, and noise from this venue.
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.
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.