Mulhall column: The Donegan referendum’s failing

Mitch Mulhall

Twice last month folks asked me to sign a petition for a referendum to repeal the development approved for 480 Donegan Road.

You should have seen the looks I got when I said, “No, thank you.”

“But you live in West Glenwood,” they countered, as though I weren’t aware of some neighborhood political consensus.

I admit I have a few concerns about the proposed development.

There’s the reality that there are but four north-south streets west of the junction of Donegan and Highway 6.

There’s the fact that two of these north-south streets have school zones.

And, there’s the prospect of putting hundreds of additional vehicle trips through the roundabouts at exits 114 and 116 during morning and evening rush hours.

Yet, when I read the draft Annexation Agreement from the Nov. 4 second reading, I see good faith measures to allay effects on traffic, schools, emergency services and numerous other concerns. It’s fair to say that increased traffic will come with almost any kind of development on that land.

Where traffic congestion is concerned, perhaps City Council figured Grand Avenue shouldn’t have all the fun. While it’s hard to know council’s rationale, they voted to approve the development.


Ordinarily, that should have been the end of it. But it’s not.

As best I can tell, the impetus of the petition drive stems from some kind of communal view of property. You can almost hear some people saying, “The idea of the development offends ‘our’ sense of open space so ‘we’ should have more of a final say about what happens.”

As the Post Independent recently put it, some see the approval as an “affront to the process of public engagement and a potential threat to their lives.”

It all sounds quite serious.

So why not sign the referendum petition?

It’s simple, really. Including City Council and the Planning & Zoning Commission, there are a whole lot of people with opinions about what should be done with the land, but despite the claims in recent “Stolen Land” graffiti crimes, none of them holds the title or pays the taxes.

But that’s just my opinion.

What’s not my opinion is that whatever your view on the 480 Donegan approval, the petition for the referendum — and the referendum itself, should it become reality — is disastrous for the city.

Property is a lot like a bundle of sticks. If you remove one or more of the sticks, you diminish the bundle’s value.

With Council’s approval, the pasture now has a value defined by zoning for and city approval of a particular development.

Hypothetically speaking, if the petition results in a referendum and the referendum fails, the development proceeds. Like it or not.

However, a successful referendum doesn’t just put the skids on development. It adversely affects the property in several significant ways.

First, it defines how the land can’t be used. The land’s value becomes something in between what can be done short of the development council approved and the stopover for migrating Canada geese and dumping ground for neighborhood yard waste it is now.

Second, it increases county ad velorem taxes on the property. The county will reassess the “highest and best use” of the property based on Council’s approval, even if the referendum is successful. This tax increase may eventually force the landowner to develop something the people like even less than the proposed development — something like, say, an RV storage facility with 60-foot security lights.

Third, it makes the property more difficult to sell. A referendum reversing an approved development yokes the land with an open-ended question about acceptable use. No one wants to buy that. Meanwhile, the landowners are stuck paying rising taxes on land they can neither sell nor easily develop.

But, some may contend, a referendum’s OK because the law allows it.

Perhaps. However, a successful referendum puts the city in the position of having to take away the property value it conferred, and a government can’t do that without compensating the landowners for the loss.

Compensation might be the difference between the land’s value if it were developed as approved and its present, undeveloped value.

It’s hard to guess what the developed land might be worth, but I’d wager the difference would take a hefty bite out of the city’s ability to fund a South Bridge.

The reality is the land will be developed. It’s just a question of when.

If you don’t like the proposed development, the referendum to repeal approval makes matters worse.

In short, Council approved the development, apparently without convincing opposition of the merits, so opponents filed a petition for a referendum to reverse Council’s decision. Consequently, Glenwood Springs may face liabilities that could set the city back in important ways.

If anything, this is a leadership problem, and the Donegan referendum won’t fix it.

But a recall petition?

I’d sign that.

Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.