A Tale of Two Developments: SMWS and Spine Road/Celestial Seasonings

Updated: May 22, 2021

The Shining Mountain Waldorf School (SMWS) proposal was approved because the developer and landowner overhauled a previous proposal, thereby creating one that was deemed to be consistent with the BVCP, the annexation agreement, the North Boulder Subcommunity Plan, and the neighborhood. As shown in the comparison below, the Spine Road proposal fails to check any of these boxes and should be tabled or denied.

This comment is based on listening to the SMWS consideration at the April 2021 City Council meeting and researching background documents to compare and contrast the two applications and draw conclusions.

There are several similarities between the two properties and proposals that make the SMWS application relevant to staff, Planning Board and Council review of the Spine application:

  • The acreages are similar: 11 acres for SMWS and 9.9 acres for Spine Road

  • Annexation agreements: both the SMWS community on North Broadway and the Gunbarrel community on Spine Road were annexed into the City

  • Subcommunity Planning: for SMWS, the application was considered for conformity and consistency with the existing North Boulder Subcommunity Plan; for Spine Road the Planning Board, City Council and BVCP are committed to sponsoring a Gunbarrel Subcommunity Plan and the community is eager to participate in the planning effort

  • The potential and proposed uses at the two properties are similar enough to be compared and contrasted

The following observations provide further analysis comparing and contrasting the two applications on key criteria, including takeaways.

First, regarding timing and approvals or denials, the initial SMWS application was submitted in 2018. At that time, the developer and landowner anticipated obtaining approvals and beginning construction in fall 2019. In fact, it took closer to 2.5 years to obtain approval of a plan that was satisfactory to review boards.

After hearing major concerns from many residents of the community on the 2018 site plan, SMWS and its partners went back to the drawing board and re-submitted a new application that significantly revised the proposed land uses and other components to respond to community concerns. The second proposal was generally welcomed by the community and won Planning Board and City Council approval in April 2021.

Takeaway for Spine Road: The Spine Road developer and landowner are on notice that it can take a few years or more to obtain approvals, that site plans lacking community support are subject to denial absent openness to make significant changes and meaningful community engagement.

The SMWS procedures and timeline provides precedent for deferring or denying a site use concept that fails to address legitimate community concerns or to achieve compliance with the letter and spirit of BVCP provisions and other guidance documents. The similarities between the properties and adjacent neighborhoods make SMWS a relevant precedent for Spine Road.

Second, regarding Subcommunity Planning, the North Boulder Subcommunity Plan (“SCP”) was a key document informing review of the SMWS application at all levels. Approval was contingent on the judgment that the application was substantially consistent with the North Boulder SCP. The original North Boulder Subcommunity Plan was first completed in 1994/95 and updated in 2014, so two rounds of subcommunity planning were conducted.

For the Spine Road site, both Planning Board and City Council priorities in the 2020/21 BVCP Update committed to Gunbarrel Subcommunity Planning. Gunbarrel Community Alliance represents hundreds of residents across the community interested in such planning, including neighbors who will be impacted by decisions on the currently vacant Spine Road parcels subject to the application, as well as additional vacant parcels also owned by Hain.

Gunbarrel Subcommunity Planning is expected to address issues including:

  • Gunbarrel community-wide vision and goals and natural assets

  • Density and housing type preferences

  • 15 Minute Neighborhoods

  • The Missing Middle

  • Types of construction and buildings

  • Climate goals, possibly encompassing “net zero” and other energy issues

  • Urban heat island effect, balanced against open spaces, urban forestry and tree canopies

  • Livability and quality of life

  • Public amenities in Gunbarrel or lack thereof, top priorities for absent amenities

  • Vacant lands potentially available to house public amenities, by acreage and location

  • Light and heavy industrial land uses versus residential, public or other options; including the acreage available for industrial, demand, suitability, and desired or missing uses

  • Public and private transportation connections to the rest of Boulder

As East Boulder Subcommunity Planning nears completion, GCA members and other Gunbarrel residents are looking forward to the Gunbarrel subcommunity planning process.

Takeaway: Until the pending Gunbarrel Subcommunity Plan is completed, action on the Spine Road proposal must be deferred or denied. Neighbors and community are committed to good faith participating in the pending subcommunity planning effort to develop and implement a vision for Gunbarrel’s future. They need a voice in planning the future of their community.

Third, regarding similarities between the sites and differences in the proposed site plans, the SMWS location is a similar neighborhood to Spine, except for being closer to retail, commercial and transit (walking distance). SMWS, like Spine Road, is near to both single family residential neighborhoods and multi-family apartment or condominium units. Public testimony identified the SMWS site as a 15-minute neighborhood, as generations of SMWS families can attest. The site is only a few blocks from the Lucky’s Market on North Broadway, which is a commercial and retail hub for the community, and only a few more blocks to other businesses and services in both directions on Broadway and the vicinity.

As one member of the public testified, the SMWS location was suitable for much higher densities based on the location and City policies directing higher density residential development to 15-minute neighborhoods.

By contrast, the Spine Road site is at least 30 minutes walking distance from the Gunbarrel local town center, where the nearest grocery store and concentration of retail stores and services is found. The Spine Road site is a food desert, and is not in a 15-minute neighborhood. Recent City Council discussion of the draft East Boulder Subcommunity Plan emphasized the importance of both concepts.

The SMWS application that was approved comprised 41 residential units on 5 acres, a density of 8.2 units/acre. That is considered low to medium under the BVCP and other planning guidance. By contrast, the Spine Road application requests ultra-high density 23 units/acre development for a location that fails to meet BVCP criteria for those densities.

Takeaway: A similar overall approach to land use incorporating more public spaces, community space, and low to medium densities are more appropriate for the Spine Road site, which is in a rural residential area of Gunbarrel far from retail, services, transit, amenities, or anything else.

Fourth, regarding public amenities and public uses, the SMWS site plan approved public uses on 7 acres on the site for school purposes, including significant open spaces that will enhance the neighborhood. As GCA documented in its “public amenities and BVCP” comment on the Spine Road application, Gunbarrel lacks most amenities prioritized by the BVCP that all other Boulder neighborhoods have access to. Gunbarrel Subcommunity Planning is needed to ascertain how many vacant parcels in Gunbarrel are available to meet the need for public amenities, and which amenities should be prioritized.

The SMWS site plan shows that the site would include much actual green space not occupied by buildings or paving, including room for meaningful tree canopies and at least a few acres with vegetative cover. By contrast, the Spine Road site plan shows that almost the entire 10 acres would be covered by buildings and pavement. This raises “Urban Heat Island” concerns.

Adding insult to injury, the Spine Road developers propose to tear out dozens of mature, beloved spruce-fir trees lining Spine Road, apparently to make more room for pavement and parking. Removing inconvenient trees that provide shade, habitat, cooling and aesthetic benefits could be avoided in a lower density plan.

Takeaway: Site plans with neighborhood support and significant public benefits can expect to be approved, whereas development proposals that fail on those metrics should not be approved.

Fifth, regarding giving back to and enhancing the community, the properties both have laudable similarities especially in regard to the history of the properties. SMWS is a North Boulder and community-wide institution that has served several generations of Boulder families since 1983. It is committed to continuing to enhance the community where the school is located and compliment the adjacent neighborhood.

Founded in 1969, Celestial Seasonings has been a Boulder institution for more than 50 years. When public concerns raised questions about prairie dog control plans for the Spine Road properties, Celestial Seasonings committed to protecting the land as wildlife habitat in perpetuity. But since the sale to the current owner, Hain Celestial Group, both neighbors and the community have noted a decided shift away from enhancing and complimenting its home in Gunbarrel. The preservation pledge is being ignored. The tasting room and gift shop are ceasing operations. Semi trailers are being parked in front of the factory, creating an unsightly wall across the property.

Takeaway: Hain Celestial, is a billion dollar corporation and should be held to at least as high a standard as a private school with unique values to promote positive educational outcomes and quality of life. If the Hain Celestial property is to be developed, the developers need to work closely with the community and demonstrate that their proposal is consistent with applicable planning documents. The current proposal is out of synch with the BVCP and needs to be denied until Gunbarrel develops a vision for its future through subcommunity planning.

In conclusion, the SMWS process illustrates the importance of engaging and listening. GCA submits that this means withdrawing the Spine Road application pending subcommunity planning for Gunbarrel, and working with the GCA and the community to create Gunbarrel’s new vision for a more livable, sustainable, resilient, better-planned community. SMWS is a good model for those who seek to develop the Spine Road site -- for community engagement, land uses, and housing types.

Very sincerely yours,

Kit Fuller, Wanda Fuller, Julie Dye, April Lyons, Ardith Rietema, Rod Rietema

GCA Officers and Board members

Mike Chiropolos

GCA Counsel

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