GOLDEN — After a hearing that clocked in at more than 11 hours, Jefferson County commissioners voted to kill a controversial plan that would have placed up to four car dealerships in the shadow of a nationally recognized treasure trove of dinosaur bones and tracks in what had become a highly contested rezoning fight near Dinosaur Ridge.
The 2-1 vote was greeted with disappointment from Greg Stevinson, a partner in Three Dinos LLC and co-owner of the site under consideration at the northwest corner of West Alameda Parkway and C-470 in rugged Rooney Valley. He said he had worked on his rezoning request with the county for more than a year and felt he had made enough concessions on lighting and landscaping that it would be seen as a win-win.
But all day Tuesday, dozens of residents in west Jefferson County decried the concept of 28 acres of car dealerships in an area that is quickly disappearing in fast-growing metro Denver: a place with truly dark night skies.
“Nobody thought we could do it,” Linnea Hauser, one of the chief opponents of Stevinson’s development plans, said immediately after the vote. “And we did it.”
The vote capped a months-long struggle that culminated last week in a large crowd gathering in front of the county building, some dressed as dinosaurs, to plead for preservation of a rural viewscape marked by undulating open space and a signature rocky hogback.
It appeared late Tuesday that the vote might go the developer’s way, with Commissioners Libby Szabo and Don Rosier talking up the sanctity of private property rights. But shortly after 7 p.m., Szabo offered up an amended rezoning plan that would allow Three Dinos to build hotels, gas stations and carwashes at the site — but not car lots.
The steady drumbeat of opposition to the automotive aspect of Three Dinos’ rezoning proposal clearly had its effect on Szabo.
“Is it appropriate?” she said of the dealerships. “Have you convinced me that’s the appropriate place?”
She was joined by Commissioner Casey Tighe in the majority vote. Rosier voted no. The commissioners will gather again Jan. 31 to cast a vote on a resolution containing finalized language for the rezoning.
“This valley is a gem,” resident Paula Bard said at the packed meeting at the Jefferson County Government Center in Golden. “The county seems like it’s in a race to pave every square inch and turn it into Wadsworth Boulevard.”
Hauser had her turn at the microphone Tuesday as well.
“This is an inappropriate development — it should never happen,” she told the commissioners. “Dinosaur Ridge is the legacy of Jeffco, and you are at the front and center of that legacy.”
Tuesday’s vote in no way stops development at the site — it simply removes car dealerships as a use. If Three Dinos decides to withdraw its application, it can fall back on the existing zoning for the site, which permits warehouses, a shopping center, big-box stores, and drive-thru restaurants.
Stevinson, who helped build Denver West and Colorado Mills in Lakewood, told the commissioners he proposed the rezoning because car dealerships and hotels would have less traffic impact than shopping centers and fast food joints. He also argued that auto dealerships create more jobs per square foot than light industrial facilities do.
“What we are presenting today is what we believe is the best mix of all options,” Stevinson said.
He said Three Dinos had agreed to mitigate signs and lighting at the lots so that they would be less visible and less bright. He also said he was aiming to attract smaller boutique dealers rather than one vast operation.
“We’re not looking for the huge, mass dealerships,” Stevinson said. “We’re looking for the small, more compact dealerships.”
Brian Connolly, an attorney working with Three Dinos, said current zoning allows 24-hour operations, no limits on lighting and truck traffic all hours of the day.
“We view this application in many ways as a down-zoning,” he said.
He noted that the northwest corner of the interchange is part of a much larger plan to develop all four corners of the interchange — all owned by Three Dinos — over the next decade. The area has been zoned for development for more than 10 years, he said, and neighbors’ wishes that it remain open space “is not where we are right now.”
Rezoning opponents largely hung their argument on the unique and irreplaceable qualities of a paleontologic treasure like Dinosaur Ridge. They argued that it should be better protected and that Jefferson County could turn it into an eco-tourism opportunity.
The site was designated a National Natural Landmarks Program site years ago. In a letter sent to the county last year, a federal program manager called Dinosaur Ridge, formally known as the Morrison-Golden Fossil Areas National Natural Landmark, “one of very few places on Earth containing such unique and widely recognized scientific resources along the fringes of a major metropolitan area.”
“The development of car dealerships on that side of C-470 would destroy that splendor,” said Janet Shin, who lives in unincorporated Jefferson County.
Tighe pushed many speakers to explain how a shopping center or fast food restaurants would have less impact than the Three Dinos plan.
“I’ve got to deal with reality here,” he said. “Exactly what elements of the proposal creates the concerns that the current zoning doesn’t have?”
He feared that without the rezoning, in which strict limits were agreed to on lighting and other aspects of the project, a development under the current zoning designation would be “much more open.”
“That unknown is kind of scary sometimes,” Tighe said.
Several people stood up to defend the project. Attorney Mike Feeley, a former state senator who now represents clients including the Colorado Auto Dealers Association, said Jefferson County shouldn’t reject out of hand commercial projects that are vital to its tax base.
Resident Dennis Hein lauded Stevinson for some of the other projects he had developed over the years in Jefferson County.
“If you go forward with this project, it will work, and it will be good for the county,” he said.
Stevinson pointed out that his plan would actually place a greater focus on Dinosaur Ridge, and its visitor center and museum. Three Dinos would have donated land and $700,000 for a new visitor center to be built closer to where the fossils and tracks are.
Many neighbors in opposition urged the commissioners to go further than simply rejecting the rezoning request — they urged them to change the zoning back to the agricultural designation it had a decade ago. Andrea Gelfuso of Lakewood told the commissioners they didn’t have to adhere to the commercial zoning established for the parcel in 2006.
They have the authority to down-zone the property so that it’s taken out of the commercial realm altogether, she said.
“You don’t have to automatically rubber-stamp it — you have options,” she said. “Remember, you don’t just represent developers; you represent more than 500,000 Jeffco citizens.”
Rosier disagreed, saying that a down-zoning would be considered a taking of private property.
With one big victory under their belts, Hauser said neighbors would now tackle the far more daunting task of attempting to get the zoning for the parcel reverted to one that would keep the dark night skies dark for good.
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