Boulder voters in the 2022 election rejected a ballot measure to repeal the city’s CU South annexation agreement with the University of Colorado, with 54% voting against Ballot Measure 2F, according to the latest election results.
The measure was the latest attempt to block the annexation deal that paves the way for development at the property known as CU South. That’s where the university wants to build student and faculty housing and academic facilities, and where the city seeks to construct a long-sought flood mitigation project — a half-mile long concrete spillway — along U.S. 36.
“I am feeling gratified, relieved, and ready to have the community move on,” Leslie Durgin, former Boulder mayor and chair of the ballot measure committee to oppose the referendum, said in an interview on Wednesday.
“We are disappointed in the election results, but we remain resolved to protect floodplains and open space in Boulder and beyond,” Peter Mayer, the co-chair of PLAN-Boulder County, an organization that advocates for open space and that helped finance the campaign to repeal the annexation agreement, said in an email.
For now, the vote clears a major hurdle for the development. But the road ahead could still be a challenging one — most immediately for the flood project.
Many residents have said they support the 2021 annexation agreement because of the spillway that would help protect the roughly 2,300 residents who live in the 100-year South Boulder Creek floodplain. The design for this spillway has been in the works for years and is slated to be among the first projects built at the CU South site.
If, for whatever reason, the spillway does not get built, the annexation agreement allows the city to annul the entire deal with the university.
For that reason, it could be the next battleground over the property. The first test will be a city permit to build part of the flood project on protected open space.
The CU South property spans 308 acres. The annexation deal designates 119 acres at the southern half of the CU South property as city open space, prohibiting development there. The spillway project, however, will be built on about five acres of existing open space, triggering what’s called a “disposal” approval process outlined under the city’s charter.
This potentially lengthy process, which includes public hearings as soon as spring 2023, requires majority approval by both the five-member Open Space Board of Trustees and the Boulder City Council.
If the disposal gets approved, the charter then allows residents to petition to have voters decide. That could mean another referendum.
“It will be the next hurdle,” Jon Carroll, a member of the Open Space Board of Trustees, said in an interview on election night. Carroll volunteered on last year’s campaign to oppose the a separate measure to block the CU South development.
While the flood project will impact a small fraction of the open space near South Boulder Creek, the fact that some of it will be destroyed — including habitat for the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse and Ute lady’s tresses, both of which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act — is likely to stoke a fight.
In addition to permission to build on city open space, the city needs federal permits and approval from the Colorado Department of Transportation, which owns the right-of-way along U.S. 36. All these could be points of contention.
Muted celebration and bracing for what’s next
During an election night watch party at the Velvet Elk Lounge, opponents of the ballot measure who support the CU South development remained cautiously optimistic, even with the results leaning in their favor. Some were hoping to celebrate an end to this election’s most hard-fought city ballot measures.
“I’m trying to keep my emotions in check. I’m optimistic. But I’m not going to celebrate,” Councilmember Rachel Friend, who first ran for Boulder City Council by campaigning in support of a South Boulder Creek flood mitigation project.
Even with a decisive result, few feel the fight is over. Since 1996, when the university purchased the land with plans to build a south campus, two other failed ballot measures have sought to block annexation.
As the election results roll in, many are wondering what comes next.
“I’m hoping that because this community has spoken so many times on this issue that people who are going to fight on the other side will say, ‘it’s over, we lost,’” said Durgin, who is also vice chair of the board of trustees at Frasier Meadows, a retirement community that flooded in 2013.
“Do I think there is a silver stake in their hearts? No,” she said.
In his email, Mayer said PLAN-Boulder County “collected more than 6,000 signatures to get on the ballot so that Boulder could learn about CU South and decide which direction to go. We had a rigorous debate during the campaign, but now we thank our supporters, accept the result, and consider our options moving forward.”
Perhaps those with the most at stake with potential further delays are residents who live in the South Boulder Creek floodplain. Many have organized into a political force since the 2013 floods, showing up at city council meetings to oppose any delays.
For them, the lingering uncertainty is personal.
“I feel relieved that the flood mitigation has not been thrown into absolute disarray. If this had passed, I don’t think we would ever get to move forward on this project,” Laura Taylor, a member of the South Boulder Creek Action Group, said in an interview on Wednesday.
Taylor, whose home flooded in 2013, said she has been advocating for the flood project for nearly a decade.
“I would be pleasantly surprised if it’s not challenged again,” Taylor said. “Each little success feels like we’re one step closer. So there is relief but it won’t really feel like resolved until ground is broken on the flood project.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said Jon Carroll was chair of the Open Space Board of Trustees. He is a board member, not chair. The story also said he volunteered for the campaign to oppose 2F. He said he was not involved in this year’s campaign, but was the treasurer of a campaign last year to oppose a separate but similar measure to block the annexation.