Guest Columns

HUDSON: DENVER OR ADAMS COUNTY?

Whose competing land use policies will fly when it comes to the prickly subject of DIA?

The Colorado Statesman

Political pundit E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post recently penned a column questioning whether American democracy remains capable of delivering the services that voters want and need from their government. While it was the dysfunction in our nation’s Capitol that prompted his musings, there is a growing skepticism among historians and political scientists regarding the performance of democratic institutions across the globe. During the past decade, electoral politics has experienced a rough patch. As a German Marshall Fund report for the Transatlantic Academy observed, in a country that has, for the most part, escaped the economic turmoil of its neighbors, “Democracy is in trouble… the collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding.”

Colorado voters are about to witness whether its leaders are capable of resolving their differences regarding competing economic development priorities at Denver International Airport. The Adams County Airport Coordinating Committee threw down their gauntlet in a blunt letter to Michael Hancock on May 1, stating that, “Regional cooperation does not mean that Denver can build whatever it wishes within the boundaries of DIA despite the IGA’s clear land use restrictions.” The restrictions they reference were contained in the Memorandum of Understanding struck 30 years ago when Adams County sanctioned Denver’s annexation of the airport property — while Denver can host businesses that directly support air operations, all remaining commercial projects are to be located in Adams County and Aurora.

Just to make sure their objections are crystal clear, the letter goes on to spell out that, “…the airport’s large size… made Adams County and its cities uniquely vulnerable to facing an enormous and unfair competitive disadvantage if Denver were ever to develop its ‘inside the box’ airport land in a manner that would compete with ‘outside the box’ development in Adams County. It is for this very reason that the IGA’s land-use restrictions were put in place, and an essential precondition of Adams County voters agreeing to such a large annexation of the county’s land.” Following an appeal for the identification of ‘tangible benefits’ for Adams County communities, the Committee warns that without them, “…we cannot in good conscience permit exceptions or alterations to the existing IGA and its clear land-use restrictions.” They gave Denver’s Mayor a week to respond to them in writing.

As one Adams County elected official characterized the vaguely worded May 8 Denver response, “At least it wasn’t a “F***-off and die!” letter, but it did smack of “Piss-off and get out of our way.” All parties found a face-saving excuse for canceling the Airport Consultation Committee Meeting scheduled for May 16 (many Adams officials would be in Washington, D.C.), but this meeting has yet to be rescheduled. Hancock’s reply is replete with phrases like, “Rather than focusing on short-term issues and parochial benefits, we must create an environment that can attract major economic development to this region — whether it is on or off DIA” and “We are simply trying to develop a vision for the Airport consistent with current global best practices, and similarly hope to create with our neighbors a mutually beneficial regional vision for Aerotropolis.” The final page and a half of Hancock’s missive offers a detailed litany of Denver initiatives, expenditures and aspirations for cooperative development at DIA.

Like two prizefighters who return to their respective corners following a first round that has bloodied both, the parties appear relieved to enjoy a few days, which may well extend into weeks, when they can summon up revised strategies for waging battle during round two. Privately, all the principals express their desire to reach a mutually satisfactory accommodation, yet they also remain aware they are dancing on the edge of the precipice. Denver has thrown several meaty bones on the table, including the swift completion of the Jackson Gap Road project and transit oriented development (TOD) coordination at the Air Train stations. But, this may not prove sufficient.

Adams County suggests that, “…we expect at least one proposed benefit involve some form of sharing ‘on airport’ tax revenues.” In turn, Denver alludes to a modified form of ‘trickle down’ economics for its neighbors, assuring them that collaboration will prove mutually beneficial. “Real success will come when we decide among ourselves that it does not matter if a business wants to locate in Adams County, Aurora, Commerce City or on DIA — that wherever it locates, it is good for all of us,” Hancock argues. This may not sound like a definition of success to voters in Adams County, which means their elected leaders won’t decide it constitutes an acceptable amendment to the IGA. If the perception develops that Adams is about to be short-changed by Denver (one more time), there won’t be much downside for shoving a stick in the spokes of the Airport City cycle.

Time will tell whether compromise seems a more attractive proposition than legal advantage. Two cheers for democracy at work.

Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and former executive director of the Colorado Intermountain Fixed Guideway Authority that studied the feasibility of a high-speed monorail between the Denver and Eagle County Airports along I-70.