• 20230502-134002-CA20050420observatory

The people wanting to develop the property in El Rancho where the old Observatory building is are moving forward without including the Foothills Fire and Rescue property.

Jack Buchanan with Northstar Ventures said he has contacted Jefferson County Planning & Zoning to ask that the application to rezone the Observatory property, Foothills Fire and the CDOT Park-n-Ride properties for commercial development be closed.

Instead, he is moving forward with developing the nearly seven-acre private Observatory property only. He has the option to purchase the property if Jeffco allows him to move forward with the development.

The development proposal has caused backlash from neighbors who believe the development is not good for the area.

This “is not a simple anti-development reaction but insistently pro-Evergreen and pro-community, well grounded in the planning guidelines of the Evergreen Area Plan and the history of planning for the El Rancho area and its landscape,” according to Kathryn Mauz, an area resident opposed to the proposal.

In addition, the original proposal caused tension for the Foothills Fire and Rescue board of directors, who have wrestled with whether to swap its Rainbow Hill fire station property located next to the Alpine Rescue Team headquarters for a new station free of charge on property further down Highway 40.

The Foothills Fire board has not made a decision, though it has said it was open to further discussion.

Buchanan said he isn’t waiting any longer to move forward.

Residents in favor of the development say the Observatory building, which is an eyesore with a fence around it to keep people from trespassing, will be torn down with nicer buildings replacing the structure. Several buildings will be down a hill, so they won’t be seen from Evergreen Parkway.

Russ Clark, planning supervisor with Jeffco Planning & Zoning, confirmed that the rezoning application is being voided, and as of late April, the county had not received Northstar’s new proposal. However, since the property is zoned Commercial 1, the proposed uses such as a hotel, restaurants, offices and other businesses are already allowed there.

Clark said without rezoning the property, and if Northstar Ventures provides development plans for businesses allowed under the current Commercial-1 zoning, then the county’s Zoning Department would not review the area’s comprehensive plan or Evergreen Area Plan as part of the approval process.

“If the zoning is not changing, the comprehensive plan is not evaluated for the site development plan,” Clark said, noting that the process is administrative, so the Planning Commission and the Jeffco commissioners would not conduct hearings.

The proposal

Buchanan is working with Mike Artz and Frank Phillips, co-owners of The Public Works, to design and create the development, and The Public Works is developing concepts for the project to add more value, Buchanan said.

Artz explained that about a year ago, they learned of Buchanan’s initial plan for the Observatory property, and they met soon after.

“I told Jack that we have been looking at this property, dreaming about what it could be, and we had roughed out architectural ideas,” Artz said.

Phillips promised that the new development would be many steps up from the dilapidated Observatory building. Asbestos abatement work has begun in the building, so it can be torn down.

“We are deep into developing the site no matter what,” Buchanan said. “We want mountain architecture, so you feel you have arrived in the mountains. … We want amenities that will be better for the community.”

Buchanan said because of the sloping land toward Interstate 70, the site has been difficult to design, but he is happy with the latest plans.

The property would be divided into seven lots, and Buchanan plans a 100-room hotel on lot 1, a 35,000-square-foot three-story building with multiple uses including some retail on lot 2, national retailers including a fast-food restaurant on lots 6 and 7, with lots 3, 4 and 5 up in the air.

“We are trying to say that this is the best thing we can dream up,” Phillips said. “We are listening, and what can we do to make it better?”

“The point is,” Buchanan said, “we know people don’t agree with the master plan or the zoning. But we are basically focused on the best project we can create with this site. … We are never going to make everyone happy.”

Artz said the developers have had serious interest from local businesses wanting to be involved.

“We are driven by the outdoor spirit of Colorado,” Artz said, adding that the developers want to be good neighbors.

“We are listening to find out what can we do to make it better,” Phillips said.

Water, sewer, fire flow, evacuations

Buchanan said the West Jefferson County Metro District and the Evergreen Metro District have indicated there’s enough water and sewer available for the entire development, plus the developers intend to use recycled gray water for as much of the project as possible.

As Phillips put it, “We’re planning to recycle a whole lot of water.”

According to Dave Lighthart, general manager of the West Jefferson County and Evergreen metro districts, an engineering analysis shows the district has the capacity to provide water and sewer to the development, though the collection system will need upgrades. The developers would pay for additional infrastructure needed to provide service.

Neighbors are concerned about fire flow, which is the amount of water pressure available in fire hydrants to fight fires. Currently, there is insufficient delivery capacity to support fire flow in the El Rancho area, and increasing demand in the area would not improve that situation, they say.

Lighthart agreed that fire flow could be improved with or without the Observatory development, which is why the water district was negotiating a plan with the Lookout Mountain Water District that would benefit businesses and residents in the area.

Mauz noted that adding more high-impact uses to the El Rancho area would benefit non-residents using the hotel or restaurants when they exit Interstate 70, and that could potentially impact all water users when restrictions become necessary in low-water years.

Opponents to the proposal add that putting a hotel and commercial development on the site will add to the number of people that would need to evacuate in case of a disaster or wildfire emergency, though Buchanan counters that with the development so close to Interstate 70, the additional traffic would be able to quickly move onto the highway.

Foothills Fire pros and cons

Northstar Ventures’ original proposal to swap the Foothills Fire property and build a new station for the department free of charge further down Highway 40 has been met with controversy. Neighbors and some associated with the fire department have been adamantly against the land swap and new fire station, while others have embraced the idea.

Foothills Fire board members have been reluctant to move forward with Northstar Ventures’ proposal, saying the proposal was not concrete. The board has heard from neighbors and has discussed the proposal at its meetings for several months.

Those in favor of the land swap say the fire department would get a new fire station without asking property taxpayers for additional money. The department has not asked voters for a property tax increase since it was formed 25 years ago.

Opponents’ concerns

Mauz and others are concerned that the density and scale of the proposed development are inconsistent with the county’s planning guidelines for the Evergreen area generally and the El Rancho Activity Center specifically that Jefferson County uses in conjunction with the Comprehensive Master Plan.

“The Evergreen Area Plan emphasizes integrating development with the landscape,” Mauz said in a written statement to the Canyon Courier, “minimizing disturbance and maintaining natural screening (i.e., forest trees), as well as preserving mountain vistas and the viewshed of the Lariat Loop Scenic and Historic Byway.

“The scale and density of what the original proposal illustrated and what is alluded to under the current proposal are contradictory to these priorities,” Mauz wrote. “It would be unprecedented even for the I-70 foothills corridor between the Hogback and Idaho Springs.”

She noted that the businesses proposed for the development are redundant for Evergreen and would not serve Evergreen residents or benefit Evergreen’s business community, which are supposed to be the focus of the Evergreen Area Plan.

Mauz is also concerned that more offices and retail space would add to the amount of vacant commercial space in Evergreen, and traffic at I-70 and Evergreen Parkway already is congested and the development just adds to the problem.