DIA sues Aurora over amendment allowing new homes near future runway

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Proposed plans for the Highpoint at DIA development. Image taken from the Dec. 16, 2019 Aurora City Council Meeting Agenda Packet.

AURORA | Denver International Airport on Friday filed a lawsuit in Adams County District Court alleging members of Aurora City Council abused their authority last month when they approved a zoning change that would permit the development of homes within half a mile of a forthcoming airport runway.

All 11 Aurora City Council members, as well as the head of the city’s planning department and real estate developer Westside Investment Partners, are listed as defendants in the suit.  

At issue is an ordinance city council members tentatively approved Dec. 16 that tweaks the municipal zoning of a 98-acre parcel of land just south of a future DIA runway. Despite strong opposition from multiple residents, the measure will allow Westside to construct residential homes as part of the High Point at DIA development, a sprawling development in both Denver and Aurora expected to eventually cover 1,800 acres. Westside was precluded from erecting homes in that particular parcel, located between E-470 to the north and East 65th Avenue to the south, under the prior zoning designation, according to city documents.

The city’s planning and zoning commission unanimously rejected the proposed amendment at a meeting in November, citing concerns that future homes would be too close to the expanding airport and detract from residents’ quality of life. 

“This proposal would be the closest to DEN and the future runway would significantly impact the quality of life of future residents,” Planning Commissioner Leigh Hettick said before voting against the proposal. 

Dozens of residents also voiced their displeasure with the proposed change in the months before city council’s decision.

“We do not need more single, multi-family homes in this area,” resident Tom Bjornson wrote in a message to the city. “There is an overabundance of residential areas without any commercial business to support the growing community.”

First launched as a concept in 2004, the High Point development is eventually expected to include more than 3,000 homes and 12 million square feet of retail space, according to its longtime design firm Consilium Design.

In a statement issued late Friday, airport officials reminded Aurora officials of the cramped situation that played a part in prompting the closure of Denver’s Stapleton Airport decades ago.

“DEN must proactively protect itself from the safety and noise problems that plagued Stapleton,” airport officials wrote. “As part of building Denver International Airport, all neighboring municipalities agreed to implement zoning to prevent the Stapleton situation from recurring. This action by Aurora is contrary to that understanding.”

Denver city attorneys working on behalf of the airport painted Aurora officials as duplicitous due to their own ongoing litigation against the airport for allegations of excessive airport noise in the Adams County portion of the city. 

Aurora finds itself asserting, on the one hand, concerns about noise levels at locations over four-miles from DEN, while on the other hand, approving single-family detached residential development less than one mile from DEN’s planned seventh runway, which would expose those residents to much higher noise levels,” attorneys wrote.

That lawsuit, filed in Jefferson County District Court in 2018, claims the airport reneged on a 1988 agreement designed, in part, to keep airport noise at a minimum.

In an email to Mayor Mike Coffman and top city staff obtained by the Sentinel, Denver International Airport CEO Kim Day raised concerns about the council’s action, particularly given the lawsuit.

“It just seems highly incongruent that Aurora would allow residential development a stone’s throw from DEN while at the same time actively seeking money from DEN over claims of significant noise exposure to residents much farther away,” she said in the email dated Dec. 20, adding that she wants a “productive and collaborative working relationship with Aurora.”

A spokesman for the city of Aurora said staffers are withholding comment on the suit until the complaint can be thoroughly reviewed. 

“The city of Aurora has not yet had a chance to review the complaint,” city spokesman Michael Bryant wrote in an email. “We will carefully evaluate any claims that are made.”

The airport lawsuit asks officials to ultimately reverse their approval of the amendment and table it until the litigation is resolved. 

— Staff writer Kara Mason contributed to this report