Metro Denver’s runaway population growth and rising home prices are putting the squeeze on local airports, which are warning that roads and neighborhoods creeping ever closer to runways and under flight paths could threaten the safety and quality of life for those on the ground and in the air.
This intensifying push-and-pull is playing out this week in Lone Tree, which has heard concerns from the Federal Aviation Administration about plans to effectively double the size of the city by placing up to 12,000 homes on 2,200 acres just south of Centennial Airport.
At the center of the FAA’s concerns about the RidgeGate development is the prospect of thousands of new residents and up to 9 million square feet of commercial space going up in an area that sits directly under the path of around 500 corporate jets and smaller planes taking off and landing every day from the south side of the airport.
In a letter the agency sent to the city on Feb. 6, it urged 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 this week to the latest blueprint for RidgeGate — despite the FAA’s admonition — the tension mounting between general aviation airports and encroaching development 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.”
It was the airport advisory board for Longmont’s Vance Brand Airport the year before that registered opposition to a 27-unit housing development that was slated for land just over a mile from the airport’s runway. Airport officials’ concern: the impact of noise on those who will live there one day.
Similar concerns also played into 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 at the time. “Let’s not put people in a position of conflict.”
Rising home prices fueling conflict
Conflict has been on the upswing as 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 scarce and expensive, pushing developers to eye parcels that are considered by some to be too close to regional 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. — RidgeGate’s lead developer — 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 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 be 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. 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.
Combating airport noise
Robert Olislagers, Centennial Airport’s CEO, said the airport has been working with Coventry to craft solutions to potential noise impacts 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.
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“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 passing 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. As far as building profiles go, the company is willing to grade the City Center site to lower building tops relative to the airport, he said.
“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 complete, 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,” Simon said.
According to its own data, Centennial Airport has a $1.4 billion annual economic impact on the region and supports a $427 million payroll at the airport and its surrounding businesses. The airport and related businesses inject an estimated $33 million a year in taxes into the coffers of Arapahoe County and local municipalities.
While the general aviation industry nationally was hit hard by the Great Recession and is still struggling overcome a decline in pilots and aircraft, according to General Aviation News, Colorado hasn’t been as hard hit. The Colorado Department of Transportation reports that general aviation airports contributed $2.4 billion in 2013, up from $1.9 billion in 2008.
“It’s a very important asset for us and the region,” Simon said.