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In a strife familiar to communities along the Front Range and especially in Boulder County, a prairie dog colony on vacant land adjacent to the Celestial Seasonings tea factory in Gunbarrel is a major contributor to opposition against a proposed apartment complex development.

Despite Boulder’s need for additional affordable housing, the developer’s plan to place its full city-required obligation of permanently affordable rental units on the site of the project at 4775 and 4649 Spine Road has quelled few concerns of the neighboring residents.

So many residents, more than 100, signed up to speak at Tuesday’s public hearing held virtually by City Council that the officials had to pass a motion to extend the meeting beyond 11 p.m.

The proposed unit mix is 45 studio, 116 one-bedroom, 56 two-bedroom and 51 three-bedroom apartment units for rent. A quarter of the units are to be permanently affordable for participants in Boulder’s housing assistance program, as is required by the city, unless a corresponding amount of cash or land in lieu of building affordable units is provided to the city.

The meeting provided a concept review, meaning no official action was taken, but rather thoughts from Council and the public were provided to the developer to inform the project at a stage when it is still malleable.

Another point of objection aside from the likely displacement of prairie dogs is that the project would include what some consider exacerbated traffic patterns in Gunbarrel, as well as whether housing should be placed on a parcel zoned for industrial use.

“This project, we think, will reduce vehicle miles traveled by in the neighborhood of a million miles annually, by bringing people that work in Boulder closer to their place of work, including the jobs that are right in Gunbarrel,” said Pete Weber, who is working on the proposed development.

Celestial Seasonings more than 20 years ago told community members it would preserve the area as a prairie dog habitat after community outrage over the company’s killing of the animals on its property. There is no formal agreement with the city to protect the animals or the land.

“I keep thinking of all the issues with the proposed project at Spine Road, but ultimately I keep coming back to one thing, the prairie dogs and the promise Celestial Seasonings, owned by Hain Celestial, made to the community in 1999,” Calan Anderson said in a Sunday email to Council, before speaking at the hearing as well. “As a City Council, you represent the citizens of this community, and my hope is you will tell Hain Celestial they made a commitment to the Boulder community and they need to keep it, by not approving the proposed development on this land. We need our elected leaders to tell big companies that they must keep their promises they make to the Boulder Community.”

Many opponents of the development, proposed on land owned by the tea company, called for a moratorium on development in Gunbarrel until a subcommunity plan for the area, which would guide development patterns for years into the future, is completed by Boulder staff and approved by Council. Such a plan is in process for a swath of east Boulder, while Gunbarrel’s has yet to be fully tackled.

“Unless this reckless development of apartments stops, Boulder will become a town where people live for a few years until they can buy a home in a nearby town and commute — thus increasing commuter numbers,” Gunbarrel resident Judith Auer said to the City Council.

Councilwoman Mirabai Nagle, a resident of Gunbarrel, said she would support a moratorium on development in the area.

“Having a vibrant colony of prairie dogs, which are a keystone species and feed 150 other species or help habitat, burrows for snakes or owls or endangered species, is vitally important right now,” Nagle said. “I will not support this project in any way, shape or form.”

Mayor Sam Weaver doubted that a moratorium would be effective.

Councilwoman Mary Young suggested the development team work with affordable housing providers in the county and the state to find a way to finance and create a neighborhood consisting of completely affordable housing units.

Not everyone was opposed to adding housing in the spot.

“We need workforce housing; we need housing that doesn’t require people to commute long distances, and we need the affordable component in this project,” said Annmarie Jensen.

Mayor Pro Tem Bob Yates recused himself from the discussion because he and his wife own stock in Hain Celestial.