There is probably no issue more important on November’s ballot than question 2F, better known as the measure to repeal the annexation of CU South.
As most everyone knows, the annexation is complicated. It includes the development of a new CU campus, affordable housing, the preservation of wetlands and, of course, flood protections for thousands of South Boulder residents. And it is this — the badly needed 100-year flood mitigation project — that truly settles this issue.
While not a simple choice, we must reject the referendum and ensure that flood protection efforts can continue. Boulder can’t afford to keep waiting — we can delay flood planning, but we can’t delay the next flood.
No one needs to be reminded of the damage wrought in 2013. Thousand-year rains led to a 100-year flood that damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and left four people dead. It is no wonder, then, that many throughout Boulder would want to implement the strongest flood mitigation standards available. But, while 500-year protection sounds appealing, it is not feasible. In addition to the technical impediments and a cost that has been projected to be over $100 million, the 500-year design violates a fundamental criteria of flood mitigation that dictates that projects can’t make downstream flooding conditions worse. According to the city, the 500-year protections would do just that.
So, while the 100-year design is not ideal, it is vital. In part because right now — nine long years after our last devastating flood — there are no new protections in place. And because 100-year protection will provide residents throughout Boulder with something essential and lifesaving during a flood: time.
The goal of the 100-year flood mitigation project is not to save every single house and building in South Boulder from flood damage. The goal is to prevent the loss of life. And the key way to do that is to slow flooding and give people time to evacuate — likely via U.S. 36, which the project will aim to prevent from overtopping.
Houses and businesses can be repaired and rebuilt. Saving lives must be our priority. Time for warnings and evacuations is what we need, and the 100-year flood plan will provide us with that.
Beyond the flood protections, the details of the annexation agreement have proved contentious, but buried in the legalese is a deal that is not nearly so bad as some have made it out to be.
The annexation provides the University of Colorado with the necessary city services to develop its much-desired south campus. In exchange, the university will transfer 155 acres to the city, 36 for flood protection and up to 119 for permanent open space.
The agreement, though, does more than simply divvy up the land. It is a legally binding document with which CU Boulder must comply regardless of its status as a state entity. The agreement restricts the university’s development to 129 acres; prohibits the development of habitable structures in the 100- and 500-year floodplains; stipulates a quota for affordable housing; and enforces Boulder’s 55-foot height ceiling, along with an additional ceiling that restricts heights even further on the western portion of the site.
Other stipulations abound: trip caps, noise and light restrictions, a large-scale stadium prohibition, continued public access, a development review process, and a right of first refusal for the city should the university ever decide to sell.
Without the annexation agreement, these carefully negotiated conditions would vanish. As would the currently in-progress flood mitigation project. Which begs the question: What would happen then? The land would still belong to the university, which is a state entity not beholden to the City of Boulder. Would CU be willing to strike another deal — one that would likely be worse for it? And how long would that take? How long would it be before a new flood plan could be developed? How long before construction began? How long before we had the dire protection we need?
Another major and legitimate concern that proponents of the repeal have is the fear that Boulder is losing more of its prized open space. The problem, though, is that CU South is not open space, and it never has been. Since 1996, the property has belonged to the university and it has generously allowed us to use the land and trails. Repealing the annexation will not save open space that does not exist. And who’s to say CU would even continue to allow public access to the land?
There are lots of fanciful dreams about what could happen if the annexation of CU South is repealed: 500-year flood protections, hundreds of acres of open space, revitalized wetlands. But the truth is, even if the annexation is repealed, this land will not belong to us. CU will not simply hand it over. Five-hundred-year protection will not materialize overnight. Realistic planning seems to have stopped at the word repeal.
The annexation agreement we have now is not perfect. But that is the nature of compromise. Nobody wins, but everybody gets a little of what they need. And what we need — and what this deal provides us — is flood protection.
This is clearly a time when “no” means “yes.” This November, vote “no” on ballot question 2F. We can continue to delay flood mitigation, but we can’t delay the next flood.
— Gary Garrison for the Editorial Board