Preface: Some 45,000 acres of protected land surrounds Boulder — open space buffering against urban sprawl. Intermingling with those 45,000 are 308 acres, just south of where US 36 leaves town, known as CU South. These acres are treated by Boulderites as open space, but they’re not. Despite being bordered by city open space, they’re owned by the University of Colorado. When CU bought them in 1996, the university said it wouldn’t build on them for at least 20 years. Those 20 years have passed. Now CU is looking to develop in a big way.
CU-Boulder’s South property has become a case in point for difficult conversations around Boulder. How do we encourage land conservation while addressing the housing shortage? How do we combat flood risk and climate change as our town grows?
As part of our local history coverage, BRL delved into this saga of our city’s history, hoping to discover what led to where we are today. This history is pertinent. On Nov. 8, 2022, Boulder residents will vote to uphold or reject the annexation agreement — a deal between the City of Boulder and the University of Colorado that made the CU South plot of land, previously outside city limits, part of Boulder proper. Such annexation requires the city to provide CU water and utilities. But what if? What if Boulder had bought the land when it had the chance? And it did have the chance.
At the end of Foothills Parkway, where the throughway joins the Denver/Boulder turnpike, a lonesome brown building bears the sign, “CU-Boulder South: To Serve the Needs of Future Students.” If the annexation agreement between the University of Colorado Boulder and the City of Boulder stands in November, the building will no longer be lonesome. Additional university housing will keep it company, as will university facilities and potentially a 3,000-seat stadium.
But the property once lacked even a lonesome building, let alone the snot-colored sign on that building’s face. It once held only a gravel pit, and before that cattle — grazing on a family farm owned by the Deepes.
Laura and Carl Deepe married in 1920 in Friedensau, Nebraska. After living in Holly, Colorado for 17 years, they moved to Boulder in 1937 and bought part of the land now known as CU South. In his obituary, Carl Deepe is listed as a farmer and a rancher, so it’s safe to assume the Deepes used the now-contested land mostly as pasture from the time they bought it until gravel mining began.
When exactly that mining began is unclear. Some sources indicate sand and gravel pulled from the site in the 1950s helped build the Denver/Boulder Turnpike. An old newspaper clipping suggests the mining company who would eventually sell the land to CU — Flatirons Sand and Gravel Co. — started digging in the early 1960s. “We’ve been mining [on the property] since 1963,” said Margaret Winter, a representative for Flatirons.
Winter’s statement came in 1981, the year Flatirons sought permit approval from the Department of Natural Resources to dig “approximately 4 million tons” of gravel from 168.5 acres of the former Deepe farm. The permit said depending on the amount of gravel available at the site, mining could continue for 17 to 25 years.
Later approved, the application appears now as the first of several turning points leading the land away from the city’s control.
A news clip from 1981 said Boulder’s then open space director, the late Jim Crain, recommended Boulder not buy the Deepe farm to add to the open space accumulating around town. At the time of the 1981 permit application, the property was operated by Flatirons but owned by Short and Milne, a company interested in selling. It seems Boulder briefly considered buying.
Four years prior, the city had designated a swath of the Flatirons site as land it hoped to make open space in the future. But the news article implies Crain decided to not buy the land because it was already being mined, and Flatirons had plans for a reclamation project. From state records, it appears Crain wanted the mining company to foot the bill for returning the churned land to a more natural state, lest the city undertake that cost themselves.
Designated as Open Space?
In 1977, the City of Boulder laid out its first comprehensive plan. Within it was a map showing the city’s allocation of open space and areas it hoped to make open space in the future. A swath of the Flatirons property fell into the latter category. (Notably, the 1977’s proposed open space closely matches land CU will sell Boulder — for open space — should CU South’s annexation be upheld.)
Another map in the comprehensive plan designates the former Deepe Farm as Area II. Area I is Boulder proper and Area III is rural Boulder likely to never become part of the city. Area II is in purgatory. Area II properties could be annexed and become part of the city, or not.
So the former Deepe Farm could have become completely open space, remaining forever outside city limits, or it could have become a fully enmeshed part of the city with development to boot, but only if “adequate facilities and services are or will be available.” (Those facilities and services will be available to CU if — again — CU South’s annexation is upheld.)
— Tim Drugan
A reclamation plan — how mine operators will restore land to something that’s not a gaping hole in the earth — must be submitted before a mining permit will be granted. The reclamation plan submitted with the original permit application would have had three lakes spanning 41.5 acres of the former Deepe Farm after mining finished. Some 444 trees and shrubs would have also been planted. The original permit says this design would be “suitable for wildlife habitat” and “prevent erosion and other deterioration.” This follows the permit listing the site’s proposed future use as “agricultural, wildlife habitat.”
In 1989, the reclamation plan changed slightly to four (and later five) lakes covering 38.1 acres. It wasn’t until CU got involved in 1997 that proposed water coverage dropped by almost 90 percent to just four acres of water made up by two ponds.
A letter Crain wrote the Mined Reclamation Board in 1982 was written with confidence that the initial reclamation would happen and the city would get first dibs on the rejuvenated plot.
Crain’s desire for Flatirons to complete its restoration plans is easy to understand, even with the uncomfortable length of the mining project. The original reclamation plan was lauded by many, including the Division of Wildlife. “It is most refreshing to see a reclamation plan designed to have a positive impact upon wildlife,” the division said.
Not everyone agreed.
Boulderites living near the proposed gravel pit bristled at the potential 17-25 year mining project in their backyard. Residents of Hy-View, Tantra and Majestic Heights subdivisions worried not only about their home values dropping — “If our property values drop, Flatirons should compensate us,” one said — but also about “those constant beep-beeps from the front-end loaders.” Margaret Winter, the Flatirons rep, asserted that because the area had been mined since at least 1963, and most homes in the area were built in 1966 or later, “the price they paid was for a house with a gravel-pit view.”
So the mining began.
Boulder rejects deal: ‘It’s one of my biggest regrets as mayor’
Through the remainder of the 80s and into the 90s, excavators pulled gravel from the former cow pasture. At some point during this period, Flatirons obtained ownership of the land. Then, in 1989, it added acres to the project and applied to transfer its mining permit to Western Mobile Inc. Approved, Western Mobile continued mining until 1995, when Flatirons began pondering what to do with its spent property.
Its first idea was to donate some for a 100,000-square-foot Women of the West museum. In return for the donation, Flatirons hoped Boulder would annex its remaining land so the company could construct 78 luxury homes. Citizens’ protests against the museum echo those seen today: traffic concerns and dismay that the property wouldn’t be preserved as open space. The initial plan fell by the wayside and Flatirons instead moved to sell. The City of Boulder was given first pass. And it did pass.
“I spoke with the city on a number of occasions [at that time],” Larry Frey, then managing partner of Flatirons, told Boulder Reporting Lab. “I spoke with Jim Crain probably four times.”
Crain was still Boulder’s open space director — a position he held for 23 years. He was also still uninterested in buying the Deepe farm, or so was the impression he gave Frey. This was likely a negotiation tactic, an attempt to get a better deal.
“The Flatirons company was [historically] quite generous and perhaps there was hope that they would just give the property to the City of Boulder,” said Leslie Durgin, the mayor of Boulder from 1990 to 1997. “Flatirons was willing to reduce the price [of the property] but they still wanted the city to pay.”
Frey, now retired, said he spoke with Durgin on the phone several times after talking to Crain. He wanted to let her know Flatirons was offering Boulder its land but Crain said the city wasn’t interested.
“Leslie, to her credit, I think she really tried to get the city to [buy the land],” Frey said.
Boulder city councilmembers are only supposed to work, in public, through the city manager. So despite Durgin wanting to tell Crain to buy, she felt there was little she could do to influence the open space director. At least nothing by the book.
“It’s one of my biggest regrets as mayor, that I played by the rules,” Durgin said. “We weren’t supposed to be talking to staff, so I wasn’t calling Jim Crain — as I wanted to — and raising hell, because council isn’t supposed to be directing staff on an individual basis. I wish I had. I don’t know if the outcome would’ve been different, but I’m sorry that the city, through a certain amount of hubris, didn’t exercise its due diligence.”
That alleged hubris was given every opportunity to soften — right up until the end.
“The day before we agreed with the university that they would purchase [the land], I spoke with Crain one more time,” Frey said. “I told him I had another buyer. I don’t know if he believed that or not. I didn’t tell him it was the university. I don’t know what [the city’s] motivation in not [buying the land] was, but they clearly had the opportunity many times.”
Both Durgin and Frey mentioned hearing about councilmembers working behind the scenes to influence Crain’s decision, perhaps encouraging him to hold out to lower the price or make Flatirons donate the land. BRL could not independently verify such details.
Some councilmembers, however, were wary of Flatirons.
Steve Pomerance, a councilmember from 1986 to 1993, and 1995 to 1997, said Crain was interested but the price was excessive. (The land ultimately sold to CU for $16.4 million, of which CU paid $11 million.)
“The fundamentals of the thing were that the city was interested in buying it but the price was too high for Crain,” Pomerance said. “Nobody really knew what Flatirons was up to behind the scenes. Should the city have bought [the land]? Well, if Flatirons would have been willing to sell it for 10 million bucks, or 9 million bucks, the city probably would have bought it.”
News clips announcing CU’s negotiations were followed closely by clips where councilmembers questioned Flatirons dealings with CU, asking why the meetings were in private. Frey, who tried repeatedly to sell to the city, bemoaned the unfairness of such allegations.
“In any transaction, we don’t divulge information until we have an agreement,” Frey said in May 1996. “I don’t think that’s unusual. There was no grand scheme to hide something. The city has had many, many opportunities to negotiate on this property. The reaction of council members Pomerance and [Lisa] Morzel that we didn’t allow the city a chance to compete for this property is erroneous.”
CU accepted a deal which, according to Frey, was “exactly the same” as the one offered the city.
“Which was, in essence, we would give them half the property and we would sell them the other half,” Frey said.
As noted above, CU committed to a price of $16.4 million but would only pay $11 million. The rest was a gift from Flatirons.
In a July 1996 Boulder Planet article — published months after CU’s negotiations with Flatirons became public knowledge – Jim Crain said he told Frey the city wasn’t interested in the land, at least not in paying for it. “Our response is, ‘Why should we buy it when we could get it for free when it annexes?’” Crain said.
What Crain probably meant is when land is annexed to Boulder, the city can make demands in return for providing that land water and utilities — as it has with CU today. As the Planet article says, one of the demands Crain planned on making was that the land be given to Boulder for open space. Though such an expectation might seem unusual, it was not unreasonable for Crain to initially expect Flatirons would lower the price or maybe even donate the land. The company had already contributed significant acreage to the city’s open space goals. So it wasn’t a leap for Crain to think Boulder could cajole CU into giving the city the land after paying for it.
In October 1996, Flatirons finalized the deal with CU.
What reclamation plan?
The burn of missed opportunity caused some councilmembers to ask the governor, Roy Romer, to get involved. Then they considered condemning the land — which didn’t happen. Eventually it became clear the land would remain CU’s, which made CU’s subsequent treatment of it oh so painful. Because for many, that land’s destiny was open space. But CU intended to develop.
In November 1996, Western Mobile, now operator of the Deepe Gravel Pit, applied to amend its reclamation plan. Gone would be the 38 acres of five lakes. In their place would be two ponds amounting to four acres.
When applying to amend a reclamation plan, the applying company must post notice of the change in the newspaper. This alerted Boulderites, and Boulderites weren’t happy. Letters from citizens flowed to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “I’m concerned about Western Mobile’s request to drastically reduce the number of lakes on the land they are reclaiming at the southeast edge of Boulder,” one reads. “This would not be enough area for an adequate wildlife habitat.”
The local chapter of the Sierra Club also wrote in.
“Flatirons is proposing to ignore an historic opportunity to repair the present industrial aspects of its development in the South Boulder Creek flood plain,” the letter reads. “It seems to be concentrating on maximizing the degree of fill for unstated purposes (or at least not stated to us), probably including some sort of dense residential or commercial development that neighboring residents and city-wide groups alike have condemned as being unworthy both of ‘Boulder’s southern gateway,’ unworthy of the planning history of the area, and contrary to the promises the University of Colorado made to nearby residents and the City of Boulder when it purchased the property last year.”
The Boulder City Council also wrote in, led by Durgin. Her letter echoes sentiments of others, but also voices concern about Western Mobile’s desire to maintain a land berm on the property. She questions why the berm was not included in the published notice of reclamation change.
“Western Mobile’s surreptitious attempt to garner authorization for maintaining the land berm as a condition of final reclamation for the Deepe Farm Pit mining site represents a complete lack of respect for the reclamation plan approval process and a total disregard for its previous commitments,” the letter reads.
A land berm, or a barrier to prevent water’s influence where unwanted, was originally installed around the southeast side of the property to prevent the Deepe Gravel Pit from flooding. Previous reclamation plans indicated the berm would be removed when mining finished. But now, Western Mobile wanted to leave it there, or, as one newspaper clip suggests, heighten it. The clip said some experts wanted the berm kept as a permanent feature. Others argued floodwaters should be able to wash across the property to drain into South Boulder creek, as they had before mining began.
“The existing land berm was never designed to federal standards or inspected by a public agency during construction,” Durgin wrote.
One letter among many — though this from the land’s new owner — was from the CU regents to the Mined Land Reclamation Board. In the letter, CU acknowledges working with Western Mobile on the updated reclamation plan “for almost a year” and “respectfully requests the Board’s favorable consideration of the proposed amendment to the reclamation plan as submitted by Western Mobile.”
Fewer lakes meant more area to build.
The outcome was disappointing to those who hoped the property would become an oasis for wildlife and Boulderites. Allyn Feinberg, a councilmember from 1992 to 1997, remembers hopes for the original reclamation plan.
“If you look at some of the mined areas that have been reclaimed around Boulder County, you see they’re both aesthetically pleasing and environmentally valuable,” Feinberg said. “So we thought that was what the end result of the area being mined would be.”
After the reclamation plan was changed, hopes for an aesthetically pleasing, environmentally valuable place went the way of the lakes.
“CU proceeded to harden the berm and regraded the land so it was flattened out for development,” Feinberg said. “That was one of the moves that began the distrust with what the university was going to do with the land and the citizens who were interested in it.”
Not only would 40 acres of lakes have provided wildlife habitat, without a berm they would have theoretically absorbed some floodwaters.
But CU owns the property now, a fact unlikely to change. And what flood mitigation is implemented will be on their terms.
“There’s a certain amount of embarrassment and chagrin at [CU South’s] history,” Durgin said. “It was not a shining moment for the City of Boulder. It was a lost opportunity.”
Publisher’s note: Comprise sponsors BRL’s Local History beat through our community business sponsorship program that allows us to enhance coverage of undercovered topics of community interest. Separately, Comprise is involved in various local public information campaigns, including a campaign to support annexation of CU South. Comprise, like all BRL’s business sponsors, has no editorial input into specific stories or anything our newsroom publishes or produces.