Boulder City Council approves land use change to allow restaurants in three regional parks

Matter will be officially approved on third reading Nov. 9

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A land use change approved by Boulder City Council on Tuesday paves the way for restaurants in Boulder’s three regional parks: Valmont City Park, the Flatirons Golf Course and the Boulder Reservoir.

The reservoir already is the site of Driftwind, a restaurant that opened earlier this year and has been the source of controversy among neighbors. Flatirons Golf Course, currently in the midst of a construction project, will be home to the next one.

However, although questions raised about the restaurant at the Boulder Reservoir at least partially prompted the city’s decision to make the land use change, Boulder officials say it doesn’t affect the current lease of the restaurant space.

“This is not about whether we lease the property or don’t lease the property or terminate the lease or change the lease,” Councilmember Bob Yates confirmed Tuesday. “This is really about the use of restaurants going forward at three big parks.”

The new standards allow restaurants “by right” as a principal use if: it’s within a regional park owned by a government; is 100 acres or more in size; and is 500 feet from any residential zone, according to information presented Tuesday.

By right means that the use is permitted without a special review and could be established if it otherwise meets the outlined limitations.

Leases for fewer than three years are approved by the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, known as PRAB, while those for more than three years must be approved by PRAB and the City Council.

As it considered how to vote, the City Council had to weigh two conflicting perspectives from city boards and commissions: unanimous support from PRAB and unanimous opposition from the Planning Board.

Instead of allowing restaurants by right, the Planning Board thought they should be considered through a use review process.

In an attempt to address this, the City Council included an amendment suggested by Councilmember Mary Young that includes a provision that the entity approving a lease — PRAB and/or City Council — must find that the lease is reasonably compatible with and has minimal negative impacts on surrounding uses, natural areas and wildlife.

“I felt that there was a gap in the certainty for addressing these impacts and compatibility,” she said. “In other words, that it was possible …  but probably unlikely that a lease would go through without consideration of the compatibility.”

While it doesn’t fully address the Planning Board’s concerns, member John Gerstle, who attended the meeting at the request of Mayor Sam Weaver, said the amendment “would go a long way to dealing with our concerns.”

Because the ordinance approved was different than the one suggested, it will proceed to a third reading, which is set for Nov. 9.

Some Boulder residents, particularly those who live near the reservoir, expressed concerns in Thursday’s public hearing, primarily about the restaurant that already exists at the reservoir. Among other things, they worry about late-night drinking, noise, traffic and the impact of it all on the wildlife that calls Boulder home.

At night, the Boulder Reservoir becomes alive with coyotes, owls, deer and bobcats, according to Shirley Schaller, whose family has owned land adjacent to the reservoir for more than a century.

“Closing at dark has kept these animals and birds safe, and their numbers are increasing,” Schaller said in Tuesday’s hearing.

Residents also raised concerns about the process, saying it is a push for commercialization of the Boulder Reservoir and that the restaurant was initially described as a daytime café.

According to earlier Camera reporting, the idea of adding new amenities at Boulder Reservoir dates back to 2017, when a new concept plan included expanding concessions to add a restaurant with a liquor license.

Furthermore, during Tuesday’s hearing, resident Eric Tussey argued the decision was meant to circumvent legal action from the neighbors “who asked the judge to rule on zoning.”

“(It) will be a moot point if you pass this,” he said. “If that’s your intent, that’s what will happen.”

Councilmember Mirabai Nagle, the sole dissenting vote, agreed with the residents who voiced concerns related specifically to the Boulder Reservoir restaurant.

“The impacts to our wildlife are something I’m not willing to compromise with,” Nagle said. “We value humans and their activity so far over what this planet can handle.”

Ultimately, the city maintains that council’s approval affects future restaurants, not the already approved one at the reservoir.

Still, as it’s gone through the process of opening a restaurant at the reservoir, Boulder’s Parks and Recreation Department has learned lessons, Parks and Recreation Director Ali Rhodes noted. For example, it intends to do a better job engaging with residents in the stage between acceptance of a concept plan and implementation of the plan.

Later, in response to questions from council members, Rhodes suggested it might be worth considering new ways to have conversations in moments when people disagree.

“We have been trying for months to handle a conversation where not everyone agrees, but I don’t think that means the process or the outcomes are broken,” she said.

Further, considering the restaurant at the reservoir is new, some council members said it needs time to get off the ground. There are provisions within the operating agreement and the good neighbor agreement meant to “take care of issues should they arise,” Young noted.

Such provisions include one that requires permission to host any event past 9 p.m., with more than 200 people or that requires amplified sound beyond what is currently allowed. Currently, outdoor speakers at Driftwind, which is currently closed for the season, must be off by 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 10 p.m. during the weekend.

“We need to let it operate as envisioned,” Young said.