The CU South annexation agreement includes preserving sections of open space, some of which is made public by the University of Colorado and groomed by volunteers for nordic skiing. The agreement will likely be up for a vote in November. Credit: John Herrick

Voters in the City of Louisville on Tuesday passed a referendum that effectively scrapped a proposed commercial development plan known as Redtail Ridge

While the developer plans to move ahead with a smaller development plan on the stretch of private property off Highway 36, opponents of the project celebrated the narrow victory as a win in the fight to preserve mostly undeveloped land. They won 3,816 votes to 3,450, according to the unofficial results.

Just days later, community organizers seeking to block a proposed residential development in South Boulder, known as CU South, met to discuss their plans to pass a referendum on Nov. 8, 2022. The news of Redtail Ridge was wind in their sails. 

“We clapped and applauded,” said Peter Mayer, the co-chair of the Repeal CU South Annexation and chair of PLAN-Boulder County, a local advocacy group backing the referendum. The organization helped persuade the Boulder City Council in July 2019 to effectively halt a housing development on the Hogan Pancost property near the East Boulder Recreation Center. 

“These things take a long time. But it does show that citizens can actually have success and win if they really stick with it,” Mayer said of the Redtail Ridge referendum. 

CU South campaign formally launches

On Friday, April 22, Repeal CU South Annexation plans to formally launch its campaign to overturn the City of Boulder’s annexation agreement with the University of Colorado Boulder to develop the CU South property. The group has already collected enough signatures to again put the agreement before voters.  

The annexation agreement allows the university to build more than a thousand housing units for graduate students and faculty. It also allows the city to build a flood wall project designed to prevent disasters like the 2013 South Boulder Creek flood. The Boulder City Council approved the annexation agreement in September 2021. Voters upheld it in November 2021 by opposing a ballot measure backed by PLAN-Boulder County. 

The new referendum would effectively undo the agreement and delay development. It’s the latest salvo in a fight dating back to at least 2006, when opponents concerned over traffic in the area sought unsuccessfully to require all annexation agreements to be approved by voters. 

Lessons learned for organizers

With the 2022 election season already getting underway, both sides in the CU South fight are girding for what is likely to be this year’s most contentious electoral fight in Boulder. And both sides are taking notes from what just happened in Louisville. 

“You have to educate the public. In the best case, it’s a battle of ideas,” Mayer said. 

For Leslie Durgin, former mayor of Boulder and vice chair on the Board of Trustees for Frasier Meadows Retirement Community, which was flooded in 2013, it’s more of a battle over misinformation. 

“There’s a lot of confusion out there,” Durgin said. 

She said she is planning to launch a campaign to oppose the referendum and uphold the annexation agreement in the next couple of weeks. Opponents of the CU South development have created confusion around issues ranging from the height of the proposed dam to the level of flood protection, according to Durgin. Watching the election in Louisville, she said, was another lesson in the need for clear communication. 

Both campaigns involved in the Redtail Ridge debate promised voters protections for open space and environmental benefits. The petitioners said the referendum would force the development project to be “revisited.” But after the election, the Denver-based developer, Brue Baukol, said he plans to move ahead with a 2010 development plan that includes less open space and fewer energy-efficient buildings. 

“I think the lesson for us is we need to be completely clear about the benefits and the advantages that Boulder gets in terms of land use, environment and public safety,” Durgin said of the CU South project. “I think in Louisville, it got really confusing. It was really mushy.” 

She said it helps to have stakeholders and public officials on your side. 

In the Redtail Ridge debate, Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann came out against it due to concerns the projects would create more traffic. (Stolzmann also voted against it in September 2021). Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones, who was concerned about the money the developer was pouring into it, also opposed it. (According to campaign finance records, the petitioners, Citizens for a Vibrant Sustainable Louisville, spent about $1,400 compared to the pro-development referendum opponents, Yes For Louisville, which raised $55,600, most of which came from the developer.)

Centura Health, which was planning to purchase land in the Redtail Ridge development area to build a new Avista Adventist Hospital, remained “neutral” on the referendum. The company told the Boulder Reporting Lab on Thursday it is not planning to move outside of Louisville and is prepared to work with the city directly to obtain zoning approvals for the new hospital.

Similarly, in the CU South debate, CU Boulder’s support has been relatively muted despite the implications for student and faculty housing. 

“The university should throw their weight behind this deal,” Durgin said. “They are being extremely cautious — overly cautious — about not trying to ruffle any feathers. Well, there’s so many feathers ruffled at this point” 

‘A citizen’s infrastructure’

The efforts to block developments in Boulder County using referendum petitions are a common tactic in Colorado, with mixed results. 

In November 2021, residents in Denver’s Northeast Park Hill neighborhood successfully prevented a proposed development on the former Park Hill golf course in an election that pitted open space against housing. In February 2022, however, organizers seeking to block a housing development in Westminster failed to collect enough signatures in time to put it to a vote. That city’s charter requires petitioners to gather signatures for at least 10% of the city’s registered voters compared to the City of Louisville’s requirement of just 2.5% of registered voters. 

Meanwhile, in May, Glenwood Springs residents will vote on a referendum to repeal a City Council-approved annexation agreement to develop housing.

The flashpoint over CU South this November likely will not be the last challenge to development in Boulder. As the city seeks to address its housing crisis, it may seek to annex and develop areas around the city. The Area III planning reserve just north of the city is already under consideration, having resulted in litigation and the attention of the newly elected Boulder City Council. 

But with every referendum that emerges to oppose a city council-passed ordinance, Mayer of PLAN-Boulder County said residents become better equipped to push back. 

This includes becoming more capable of collecting signatures and working with other organizers. (He invited the opponents of the Redtail Ridge development to share their ideas and support with his group.) 

“They are training us to do this,” Mayer said of elected officials who pass ordinances that organizers seek to oppose. “You create a citizen’s infrastructure. And once you have that, citizens might consider availing themselves of it.” 

Update: This story was updated at 9:30 a.m. on April 22, 2022 with additional information about Centura’s plans for the Avista hospital in light of the referendum.

John Herrick

John Herrick reports on housing, climate, health and local government for Boulder Reporting Lab. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness.