Wheat Ridge set for what will likely be a heated hearing on Sept. 18

Wheat Ridge is going to a public hearing on Sept. 18.

City Commissioners had some discussion during their Aug. 7 meeting about not setting the public hearing but city staff said they believe it should go to a hearing to allow for due process of the project.

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City staff are recommending that the annexation and zoning request be denied. The city planning board voted earlier this year to recommend that the project be approved.

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During Tuesday’s meeting, City Planning Director Craig Raymond gave a brief overview of the city’s concerns on the project, which are storm water issues, strain on public safety resources, transportation connectivity and conflict with current and future missions at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

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Abigail St. Lawrence, an attorney for the developers, asked commissioners to read their memos included with the staff report and said the developers will continue to meet with the city and other involved agencies.

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City staff have indicated serious concern about approving the Wheat Ridge subdivision since they believe it could exacerbate the storm water situation downhill where a property owner has already submitted a $2 million claim against the city.

St. Lawrence said it’s a “city liability that already exists” and it’s not fair to hold the developer responsible for that.

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On response times for public safety, St. Lawrence said there are other areas in the city with slower response times.

She and Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority, said that the city should be consistent in expressing those concerns related to new annexations.

Great Falls Fire Rescue has expressed concern about their ability to serve new development over the last few years and their need for more staff to be able to continue serving the city at the level residents expect.

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During public meetings related to NeighborWorks Great Falls’ Rockcress Commons apartment complex south of town, GFFR and city planning officials mentioned concerns about public safety response times, though those concerns were mitigated by sprinkler systems in the buildings and that public streets bordered the development on multiple sides.

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City officials also required higher levels of storm water management for that development.

Doney made statements earlier in the meeting saying that the Great Falls population was trending younger and St. Lawrence said those people would need a place to call home so commissioners should “consider the future of Great Falls.”

Discussion over possible conflict with operations at Malmstrom was again a major part of the discussion.

St. Lawrence called it the “elephant in the room” that there’s a community belief the base will get another fixed-wing mission.

City Manager Greg Doyon made comments to commissioners during the meeting, a move that visibly frustrated the Wheat Ridge team.

Doyon said he doesn’t typically address land use decisions, but there have been a few annexation requests that he’d been concerned about in his time here and the Wheat Ridge proposal was one.

Initially he was going to suggest that the commission not schedule a hearing but now recommends that commissioners hold the hearing.

The developers have suggested that the city impose an impact fee to address their public safety concerns, but those funds can’t be used for maintenance or operations, according to the city. So the funds could be used to build a new station, but Doyon has been hesitant over the years to build a station without identifying sustainable revenue to support the staffing and ongoing operations and maintenance costs that would accompany a new facility.

The impact fee, Doyon said, “is just not going to be sufficient” since public safety operations are stretched already.

He also cautioned the commission related to the storm water litigation.

He said the concerns about public safety and the city’s ability to serve the subdivision will apply to any major development.

On Malmstrom concerns, he said the base has a $367 million impact on the community, plus the 120th Airlift Wing has additional impact.

The concern over Wheat Ridge’s impact to current and future military operations is “not all about a fixed wing mission,” he said.

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The Air Force is currently working to replace the entire Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system with the ground based strategic deterrent. Two contracts have been awarded for the current phase of the project, one to Boeing for $349 million and one to Northrop Grumman for $328.

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The Air Force is also expected to award a contract later this year for the UH-1N Huey replacement, a program capped at $4.1 billion. That program has associated multi-million dollar construction projects for a new alert facility, helicopter hangar and missile maintenance facility and other major capital improvement projects at Malmstrom and other ICBM bases.

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Malmstrom officials are also working to develop a helicopter skid pad and the plan has been to build an assault landing zone in conjunction with that project. The assault landing zone could be used by any aircraft with that capability for training. The C-130s at the 120th Airlift Wing have been working to develop such landing zones in the region for their own training and for several years, 120th commanders have indicated a desire to become a training hub for military cargo units nationwide.

The project would be owned by Malmstrom and it remains in the environmental assessment phase, Malmstrom officials told The Electric this week.

The Air Force has repeatedly told The Electric that it has no plans to reactivate the runway on base. The runway was deactivaed in 1997 when the tanker mission left.

Doyon serves on the board of the national Association of Defense Communities and said encroachment is frequently a topic of concern.

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“There is no turning back,” Doyon told commissioners if they approve the development. “It could close the door.”

Commissioner Tracy Houck asked what would happen if they didn’t set a public hearing and Raymond said the commission has discretion but would recommend including specific instruction if they did that.

Doney said GFDA is neutral on the Wheat Ridge proposal but it “boils down to a decision only elected officials can make” on weighing economic development versus the military since other issues like storm water and connectivity can be worked out.

Commissioner Owen Robinson moved to set the public hearing and said “delaying a decision on this doesn’t make it go away.”

He said that setting the hearing for Sept. 18 gave commissioners plenty of time to do their homework.

“It’s important to go ahead with a public hearing,” he said and prepare to “make what will likely be a controversial decision.”

Houck asked if the commission could have a work session on the project before the hearing. Doyon said his advice would be to have the hearing and if commissioners aren’t equipped to make a decision then they can schedule a work session for further information and discussion.

City Attorney Sara Sexe agreed with Doyon’s suggestion.

Commissioner Mary Moe said, “I Just feel we have an obligation to have the public hearing. It’s time for us to hear it.”

Mayor Bob Kelly was absent for the Aug. 7 meeting but will be back for the public hearing on Sept. 18 so the full commission can hold the public hearing.