Guest column: Vote yes on repeal — for all Glenwood Springs residents

Laurie Raymond
Glenwood Springs Citizens for Sensible Development

In West Glenwood, roughly half the residents and businesses, including the Mall, lie within the city limits, between Highway 6 and Donegan Road. Historic neighborhoods north of Donegan meander along narrow residential streets in unincorporated Garfield County, to dead-end at the Flat Tops wilderness boundary.

Geographically cornered, the families who live here have experienced wildfire evacuations many times, yet no efforts had been made to protect them from increasing fire threat — until summer of 2020.

Two events converged to alert these families to an imminent threat, demanding resolute action. First, the Diemoz family and Cincinnati developer R2’s disquieting announcement of plans to annex the parcel of land behind the Mall and build a massive housing project on it, across the road from many of their homes. Next, they experienced panic, gridlock and chaos following an order to pre-evacuate due to the “111 fire.”

It was immediately obvious how 700-900 more people and vehicles clustered between Donegan and Highway 6 — the only access to I-70 and a route to safety — would create a trap for those living north of Donegan.

After three P&Z meetings ended by recommending denial, the application went to City Council. At meeting after meeting, speakers detailed their objections, with wildfire threat always number one.

The 4-3 vote to annex shocked opponents into organizing Glenwood Springs Citizens for Sensible Development. Its campaign to repeal it easily obtained over 900 signatures, three times the required number, demonstrating city-wide dissatisfaction with Council’s priorities.

This developer has proven expert at marketing. The city wants affordable housing? OK, we’ll use official AMI to label some units affordable, though not for most of those priced out of Glenwood. People want a revitalized Mall? OK, we’ll call our development a “catalyst” enabling investment and hint that a grocery store is in the works. Everyone wants reduced traffic on I-70? OK, we’ll spin our project as “workforce housing” for Glenwood workers. Never mind the impact of 500 additional cars on traffic in and through town.

GSCSD has widely shared its careful research, informing citizens through its website, campaign materials, at public meetings and by inspiring dozens of thoughtful letters to local papers, bringing the facts to light.

The most compelling argument for repeal remains the issue of safety, and how R2’s project, far from bringing a solution, increases the community’s vulnerability. This has not so far been given a full examination, perhaps because of its complexity in contrast to the developer’s glib claims, and partly because it has been mislabeled a West Glenwood issue. Wrong. West Glenwood is the canary in the coal mine, and all of us, from Rifle to Carbondale, the acknowledged zone of extreme fire danger, are living in the mine.

R2 donates an acre of the parcel for a fire station. But the city must pay up to $15.5M to build and equip it. R2 touts its contribution of $100K toward a fire safety and evacuation study. A drop in the bucket of what is needed. But its cynical promise to have “a complete evacuation plan in place” before occupancy is a master stroke of manipulative advertising: reassuring words, committing to nothing.

At the March 17 City Council meeting, City Engineer Terri Partch presented an update on emergency evacuation planning that shows how preliminary and complex this undertaking is. Listing steps now being considered, like access line breaks on I-70, developing a Traffic Incident Management plan and a Traffic Emergency Management plan, it merely identifies the agencies required to collaborate. No timeline, no fiscal impacts, no specific recommendations were included.

GSCSD worries that the city will rush to judge the planning “in place” to be adequate for 600+ people to move in to 480, long before planning, modeling, building and testing of necessary components could be fully implemented. City government abdicated its primary obligation to protect citizens’ safety when it accepted vague assertions in the annexation agreement without insisting on meaningful specifics.

In Colorado Springs, currently the largest WUI (wildland urban interface) area in the state, a local nonprofit, Westside Watch, has spotlighted one of the necessary elements of planning and how it should inform land use decisions: setting achievable and adequate goals for evacuation clearance times by using computer modeling. The latest such model, FLEET (Fast Local Emergency Evacuation Times) is available free to municipalities and used now in effective planning for everything from terror attacks to hurricanes.

Would the 480 Donegan project create a scenario wherein residents living north of Donegan Road face evacuation clearance times so long as to be unsurvivable because of the number of people and vehicles the complex puts between them and access to I-70? Modeling could gauge the effectiveness of proposed interventions.

As work goes forward among the professionals, we can expect the focus to be on efficient and effective problem-solving. But clearly, the rush to annex and build this development is indefensible. This is why it is absolutely necessary to vote “Yes” to repeal the annexation and stand up for prudent land use decisions in a challenging time.

Laurie Raymond is a member of Glenwood Springs Citizens for Sensible Development.

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