Plans for Aurora’s new eastern frontier come with a heavy cost for control

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AURORA | If Aurora decides to grow eastward, it could mean an additional 128,000 residents and more than 50,000 new homes, which could make Aurora the second-largest city in the state.

Aurora City Council members are due to consider a study analyzing the costs of expanding the city by 20,000 acres of property east of Monaghan and Hayesmount roads. The plan includes the potential for 51,000 new homes and 15.4 million square feet of new commercial development.

Results from a $531,000 study, conducted by Mark A. Nuszer Consultants, found Aurora would experience an eventual population increase from 351,200 to nearly 480,000, a 36-percent increase with the eastward addition, if approved. While Aurora City Council members recently nixed an equally expensive, years-long study on whether or not Aurora should become its own city-county, they are again at a crossroads for where the city’s future lies.   

Under a best-case-scenario where the new area is fully developed, the growth would cost Aurora $15 million per year to provide services to the area for the next 20 to 50 years, according to the study. That’s because with a large portion of the growth being residential the city would not be making enough money from commercial property tax to fund necessary increases in city services for 128,000 more people. In a scenario projecting no commercial buildout and about 50 percent of the 50,000 residences completed, the burden of providing services could cost Aurora more than $21 million per year, according to the study.

Aurora Ward IV Councilman Charlie Richardson agreed there would be a negative financial impact from the expansion as Aurora’s long-existing problem has been balancing residential with commercial development. But he said, Aurora could feel the financial impacts of development eastward regardless.

“I’d rather control our own destiny, have the building conform to our standards, than having a city over which we would have no say of building quality or anything,” he said.

With the projected 128,000 new residents, Aurora would be adding a population comparable to Thornton today. The study states that at full buildout of the proposed expansion, the city would need to add 242 new police officers, five new fire stations and 93 more fire personnel, add 181 acres of community parks and 2,400 acres of open space and 1,450 new public road lane miles to account for the new residents. Water tap-fee connections would also increase under the expansion.

According to city documents, there are four separate areas that make up the annexation study. The first is a potential 9,000-home residential development called “Prosper,” a 5,100-acre area located between Interstate 70 and Mississippi Avenue north to south, and Hayesmount and Imboden roads west to east. The Prosper community is also expected to include 8 million square feet of non-residential use.

Richardson said such a large development is like “having another city to east,” and that Aurora not incorporating the development would essentially make Aurora an inner-ring suburb, which he called “disastrous” for Aurora’s future. 

He said when the issue comes back to city council, he would like to look at ways the developer could pay some of the way. Right now, even under a best-case-scenario the Prosper buildout would cost Aurora $143,000 per year, according to the study.

At-Large Councilman Bob LeGare agreed the city would feel financial impacts from a community as large as Prosper, which he said is about “the size of Highlands Ranch.”

“It’s a dilemma for me,” LeGare said. “I look at that annexation study and it says it’s not going to pay for itself. Yet, if we don’t do it, that area is likely to develop in the county and Aurora will have all the negative impacts of the traffic and we won’t get a dime of revenue from it.”

The study said Aurora would be looking at $28 million in road improvements to the Interstate 70 Watkins Road Interchange, East 6th Avenue, Jewell Avenue, Yale Avenue and Quincy Avenue with the expansion. 

LeGare said the city could look at making agreements with developers that could put building some of that infrastructure on the city’s terms.

“We do that by modifying our annexation agreements,” he said. “We’re not going to build pipelines for water and infrastructure way out into no-man’s land. We only provide those services when the development grows that way.”

The annexation also includes 3,000 acres of land owned by the CCSC group and is located between Prosper and the land owned by the State of Colorado Land Board. The third portion of land is the northernmost 3,800 acres of the former Lowry Bombing range property owned by the state land board. In 2008, the developer Lend Lease Communities was negotiating with the land board to include up to 13,000 new homes and 1 million square feet of commercial space in this area. Other property the city’s studied look at is a large area of land held by TCBO Holdings east of Imboden Road, that includes some other landowners.

Other council members said they were concerned about Aurora’s ability to serve residents with its current population. 

“My feeling is I don’t want any of this to come without being assured we have enough water resources for the future to take care of what we have now,” said Aurora Ward II Councilwoman Renie Peterson. Right now, Peterson’s ward stretches the furthest east of any, just past Denver International Airport.

“Why would we take on more infrastructure, more housing, more problems with using Sixth Avenue without the widening happening, and create more of a problem out there for Murphy Creek and that whole area, without a completed study guaranteeing us we have enough water for the future to sustain a new development?” Peterson asked.

According to the study, Aurora’s total infrastructure and water rights costs associated with serving 128,000 more people would be $639 million due to water rights acquisition, storage, treatment and increased connection fees.

“The cost of acquiring the water rights to meet this demand is estimated at $312 million,” the study found. At an April Planning and Zoning Commission hearing on the potential annexation, city officials said 45 years from now, the city predicts a gap of water supply and existing storage, and has not yet identified how to close that gap.   

At a recent study session, Aurora Water officials said water rates would increase by about 3 percent every other year starting 2017 to  assure the city can supply for 50,000 new residents beyond the current population.

City officials are also eyeing three future reservoirs to grow Aurora’s water storage system and appear to be close to buying land for the future Wild Horse Reservoir in Park County. Lisa Darling, Aurora Water’s South Platte Basin program manager, said at a meeting in April that reservoir is likely to be designed and completed by 2022.

Annexing the land would require an amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan.

City council will look at amending its comprehensive plan, a document Aurora uses to guide residential and commercial development as well as policymaking, July 18 to allow for the possibility of incorporating developments such as Prosper into city boundaries. Their yes or no vote will not yet mean Aurora has agreed to annex the proposed area.

For some city council members, the issue at this point is whether or not to amend the city’s comprehensive plan, to at least allow for the possibility of development eastward.

“If there’s a really good project, we can’t do anything unless the comprehensive plan allows for it,” said Aurora Ward VI Councilwoman Francoise Bergan, of why she will likely vote in favor of amending it. “I’m okay with approving that because it doesn’t tie us to any cost at this point,” she said.

Even if Aurora annexes eastward, it would still take awhile for to development within Aurora to completely fill in.

The study said there was still room to build 57,000 new homes in neighborhoods near Denver International Airport, Interstate 70 and near Smoky Hill Road.

“Assuming that eastern Aurora continues to build out at the average pace observed over the past 15 years (approximately 1,000 units per year), it could take over 50 years to absorb all of the current development capacity in known approved projects,” the study states.