As Denver-area growth becomes testier, local airports become the latest source of pushback

aircharter As Denver-area growth becomes testier, local airports ...

ENGLEWOOD, CO – September 22: An aircraft takes off from the Centennial Airport September 22, 2016. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The latest dispute stemming from metro Denver’s runaway population growth is heating up this month in Lone Tree, where ambitious plans to double the size of the city are bumping up against concerns about its proximity to a nearby airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently expressed concern about the RidgeGate East development, which calls for up to 12,000 homes and 9 million square feet of commercial space on 2,200 acres south of Centennial Airport — an area that is under the path of 500 aircraft taking off and landing every day.

On Feb. 6, the agency sent a letter to the city urging it to “not approve the development as proposed and explore alternative uses of this land that better conform with federal, state and industry recommendations for compatible land uses near airports.”

While the Lone Tree City Council gave its blessing Tuesday night to the latest rendition of RidgeGate’s development plan — the FAA’s warning notwithstanding — the tension created by roads and houses creeping ever closer to airports in and around Denver is not unique to this city of 13,000.

Last summer, the FAA sent a letter to officials in charge of planning the Jefferson Parkway in the northwest part of the metro area, warning them that the proposed alignment of the highway where it passes the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport is too close to the airport’s “runway protection zone,” which “would introduce new safety risks that do not exist today.”

It was the airport advisory board for Longmont’s Vance Brand Airport the year before that registered strong opposition to a 27-unit housing development that was slated for land just over a mile from the airport’s runway. That airport’s concern: the impact of noise on those who will live there one day.

Similar concerns also played a factor in a 2016 decision by the city council in Centennial to reject a large residential development that would have sat in the shadow of Centennial Airport, the nation’s second-busiest general aviation airport.

“I’m an advocate of being very cautious,” former Centennial Mayor Cathy Noon told The Denver Post then. “Let’s not put people in a position of conflict.”

Rising home prices fueling conflict

Conflict has been on the upswing as the metro area’s housing prices climb ever higher — the average price of a single-family home in metro Denver sold last year reached $480,140, up 8.7 percent from 2016 — and the inventory of available homes scrapes new lows.

Prime land on which to build is in short supply and expensive, pushing developers to eye parcels that are considered by some to be too cozy in terms of their proximity to nearby airports. That has not just the FAA, but airport managers, pushing back.

The FAA’s letter to Lone Tree earlier this month landed hard, with both the city and Coventry Development Corp. expressing “surprise” and “bafflement” at the agency’s stance. Lone Tree Mayor Jackie Millet said the RidgeGate parcel at the southeast corner of Lincoln Avenue and Interstate 25 has been zoned for homes since 1972 and was annexed by the city nearly 20 years ago with the aim of building out the southern suburb.

There are currently three new rail stops being built for a 2.3-mile extension of the Southeast light rail line — set to open next year — that will take trains into the heart of RidgeGate.

“Why?” Millet asked about the reason behind the FAA’s letter. “My question to the FAA is: Have they looked at the map?”

She noted that hundreds of homes have already been built in unincorporated Douglas County — as part of the Meridian development — that are even closer to Centennial Airport than RidgeGate would be.

“They would have to explain to me — what is different (about this)?” Millet said.

FAA raises pilot safety concerns

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said RidgeGate “would sit directly under approach and departure paths to the airport, and the terrain rises in this area.” Planes may by flying just 400 feet above rooftops, which could prove “alarming for the public,” Gregor said.

There’s also wariness from aviation officials about the possible hazard that buildings in RidgeGate’s City Center, which may top out at 10 stories, would pose to pilots relying on instruments to approach the runway in inclement weather.

Gregor said the FAA raised similar concerns about other developments around Centennial Airport, which sees 1,000 daily landings and takeoffs of corporate jets and smaller planes. Ultimately, the decision on RidgeGate’s future “rests solely with Lone Tree,” he said.

Millet said the city wants to make sure the interests of both the airport and the developer are respected in the approvals process. She doesn’t think the FAA letter will derail the project.

“Their concerns can be mitigated,” she said.

Another issue for airport-area residents: Noise

Robert Olislagers, Centennial Airport’s CEO, said the airport has been working with Coventry to come up with solutions to potential noise concerns for future RidgeGate residents. That includes the possibility of using more sound-resistant construction.

“If you’re trying to sleep and a jet comes over your house, you’re going to know it,” he said.

The airport, which turns 50 this year, received 12,000 noise complaints last year, though 75 percent of those came from just five households, Olislagers said.

“We’re not so concerned about noise complaints as we are about the quality of life (RidgeGate residents) might have being so close to an airport,” he said, noting that dust and vibrations from overpassing aircraft could add to frustrations on the ground.

Coventry executive vice president Keith Simon said prospective homebuyers will be given full warning about aircraft noise.

“Any concerns that do come up as we go forward in the process, we can mitigate,” Simon said.

He said RidgeGate, which could take 40 years to fully build out, is critical to the south metro area’s continued economic success. The eastern portion of the development alone could generate up to 50,000 jobs. RidgeGate’s West Village, which sits on the other side of I-25 and boasts the Charles Schwab campus, Sky Ridge Medical Center and Cabela’s, already employs 7,000, Simon said.

Centennial Airport, he said, plays an important role in making a project like RidgeGate a success.

“We have no desire to harm the airport in any way,” he said. “It’s a very important asset for us and the region.”

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