A plane takes off from Denver International Airport as clouds reflect the colors of the sunrise in Denver, Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

AURORA | There is no argument that there are dozens of square miles of prairie land ripe for development surrounding the Denver International Airport. There is a big argument as to who gets the rewards for that inevitable growth.

Development in that area, which straddles a handful of jurisdictions including Denver, Aurora and Adams County, equals dollar signs for lawmakers who are now in negotiations on how to capitalize on the millions in tax revenue that will result from future businesses on that land.

But like most political dealings, where there’s money to be gained, there’s controversy about who stands to gain it.

According to agitated Adams County and Aurora officials, Denver is proposing to renege on an agreement made two decades ago that states that only airport-related development can occur on Denver’s DIA property, and all future off-airport commercial development would be located in Adams County and its municipalities.

Denver officials say they interpret the 1988 agreement in broader terms, meaning both on-airport and off-airport development should financially benefit all jurisdictions who have rights to that land, including Denver.

After more than a year of talks and several months of sparring via letters, neither side has come to an agreement. Officials from Adams County and Aurora say that the pact signed by all parties in 1988, and a ballot question that Adams County voters approved regarding de-annexation, gives them the upper hand.

Controversy heated up earlier this spring, when Denver officials touted the idea of an “Airport City” to be built inside the airport border. The Airport City plan calls for the development of businesses in industries including aerospace, logistics, renewable energy, agrotech and aviation.

That idea irks Adams County officials who say a 1988 contract strictly limits development to the airport and airport-related business, or else the land should be returned to Adams County. Critics say classifying aerospace, renewable energy and agrotech businesses as airport-related is a stretch. Denver disagrees.

“Denver is confident that the (intergovernmental agreement) allows for broad commercial development on the airport,” Hancock said in a written statement. “(It’s) the kind of commercial development that is occurring at airports around the nation, development that will create jobs for residents of the entire metro Denver region, and development that is allowing airports nationwide to meet a key federal priority of becoming more self-sufficient.”

In response to Denver’s hopes for an Airport City, Adams County officials asked for a formal, revenue-sharing proposal from Denver regarding land-use and commercial development. What they got in late May peeved them even more. Under Denver’s proposal, there would be no restrictions on commercial development on Denver’s land inside the airport boundaries.

Hancock, in a letter, wrote that a special district should be created around the airport — an area that includes Denver’s narrow land along Peña Boulevard. The district would assess a tax on future development in that area and then split most of the tax revenue among Denver, Adams County and communities within the county.

The money, as long as it’s matched in funds by Adams County, Aurora and Commerce City, could be used by those communities for road improvements, bridges and public infrastructure projects surrounding the airport, according to his proposal.

Aurora and Adams County officials balked at the idea, saying the land surrounding the airport, dubbed “aerotropolis,” is theirs, and theirs only, to control and benefit from.

Adams County officials have said the proposal “would make Denver the primary and overwhelming financial beneficiary of economic development, and wouldn’t require any revenue to be shared from taxes that Denver collects on former Adams County lands.”

At a private Aug. 20 Airport Coordinating Committee meeting, Adams County, Brighton, Commerce City and Aurora officials talked about next steps. Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said after the meeting that the group of 11 officials are hoping to reach consensus on how to address Denver’s proposal. Hogan said he’s not going to agree to any deal that wouldn’t directly benefit Aurora.

Officials from both sides declined to elaborate on what’s in contention.

“We’re a city that has a lot of growing to do, and we need to make sure we are paying attention to jobs, revenues, competition, everything,” he said.

The committee will meet again on Aug. 27 to continue working on a response to Denver’s proposal.

But Adams County Commissioner Chaz Tedesco, a member of the Adams County Airport Coordinating Committee, says he has is adamant about sticking to the terms of the 1988 contract between Denver and Adams County — even if it results in a lawsuit.

“Myself and the other county commissioners will do everything within our power to enforce that (contract), and we’ll do what’s beneficial to the Adams County constituents,” he said. “We have to see something that’s a tangible benefit to Adams County.”

In essence, Adams County is looking for a reason to give up what it believes it’s already got, officials say. Critics question what revenue Denver could share since all revenues now are funneled into paying huge airport construction bonds. In the original contract, Denver was promised an airport on Adams County land, while Adams County was promised that it would reap the benefits of off-airport economic development.

“(Denver officials) knew what they were getting into when they got into this,” Tedesco said. “Just because 20 years goes by doesn’t mean that changes. It just means that 20 years went by.”

Officials from Hancock’s office said they recognize there is a disagreement, and they prefer to “amicably negotiate a resolution.”

“We’re hopeful we can sit down and reach a mutually beneficial agreement,” Hancock’s office said in a statement. “Denver is committed to finding a solution that creates jobs, boosts the entire region’s economy and strengthens the collaborative spirit that is the hallmark of the metro area.”

Reach reporter Sara Castellanos at 720-449-9036 or sara@aurorasentinel.com.