Still undecided on Hughes Stadium ballot measure? Here’s what to know

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Through wildfires, freak blizzards and a global pandemic, one thing has remained constant in Fort Collins for years: The future of the former Hughes Stadium site remains fuzzy.

The April 6 election will give residents their first chance to weigh in on the matter in the most meaningful sense, through a community-wide vote.

The ballot measure will ask voters if Fort Collins should attempt to purchase the 165-acre site from the Colorado State University System and zone it as 100% open lands. The two parts of the ballot measure would be carried out concurrently, and the ballot measure can’t force CSU to sell its land. Fort Collins would be expected to try to purchase it for fair market value, preventing a scenario where the city would be obligated to pay an elevated price for the land.

Citizen group PATHS (Planning Action to Transform Hughes Sustainably) got the measure on the ballot after collecting more than 8,300 signatures from registered voters in city limits. PATHS representatives told the Coloradoan the zoning aspect of the ballot measure is their key focus.

Two issue committees have been formed in connection with the Hughes ballot measure: Friends of Hughes Open Space, which is affiliated with PATHS, and Stand with CSU, which has ties with Citizens for a Sustainable Economy, a group affiliated with the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce.

More:Business-led group forms to defeat Hughes Stadium open space ballot measure

Friends of Hughes Open Space reported $4,055 in contributions from 55 individual donors and $2,800 in expenses primarily to San Francisco company Twilio for texting and Washington, D.C., company NGP Van Inc., for voter file/database and a sign company for banners and yard signs. The largest donation during the reporting period was $2,060 from Fort Collins mayor pro-tem Ross Cunniff. 

Stand With CSU reported $12,000 in contributions in the first two weeks of March, all from Citizens for a Sustainable Economy. In its finance report filed with the city clerk’s office Tuesday, it reported spending about $11,000 on direct mailings to voters. 

A lot of the debate over the Hughes land comes down to its preservation value — “crown jewel of Fort Collins” or “former parking lot”? — and property rights — is it kosher for the city to decide whether and how CSU develops its property, particularly if those decisions affect the land’s value? 

Read on for a Blue Book-style explanation of the Hughes measure, including its history and the pros and cons of the measure, according to its supporters and detractors, drawn from Coloradoan research and interviews.

Hughes Stadium site redevelopment: Keep up with our ongoing coverage

A brief history of the Hughes Stadium site

Before this gets too messy, here’s a timeline:

2017: CSU opens its new on-campus Canvas Stadium.

Spring 2018: CSU demolishes Hughes, its off-campus football stadium for the previous 50 years. The university announces plans to sell the land to developer Lennar Homes for $10 million, plus bonuses based on the number of homes ultimately built on the site.

July 2019: Fort Collins City Council votes to initiate the rezoning process for the site, a step that is typically left to the landowner or developer. The council members who supported the move said they wanted to make sure the land’s future aligned with city plans and community values. Those opposing the move said it infringed on CSU’s property rights.

November 2019: After a public engagement process and review by the city’s Planning and Zoning Board, council votes 4-3 in favor of split zoning on the site. The approved designation would allow a higher number of homes on the east end of the site and a lower number of homes on the west end, closer to the foothills. The council members voting against the split zoning wanted the whole property zoned for low-density housing, which would create 2-acre lots.

May 2020: After three rounds of ethics complaints protesting council members who are CSU employees for participating in the zoning vote, one of the council members — then-mayor pro-tem Kristin Stephens — recuses herself from the mandatory second vote on the land zoning. Stephens’ recusal creates a 3-3 tie, and the rezoning effort flops.

October 2020: Council-initiated negotiations result in CSU offering to sell half the stadium site to the city and the city counter-offering to buy all but 10 acres of the site for about $7 million. CSU System’s Board of Governors rejects the city’s offer and votes to kick off the Site Plan Advisory Review Process, invoking its status as a public state entity to sideline the city in future planning for the land.

November 2020: PATHS submits more than 8,000 signatures for its citizen petition, ultimately landing its proposal a spot on the ballot.

January 2021: CSU unveils its current plan for developing the Hughes site, including 671 dwelling units — 462 single-family homes, duplexes and townhomes and up to 200 apartments — a day care, an urgent care, transit centers and 70 acres of open space.

February 2021: Council approves the ballot language, following a judicial order directing the city to include both the land acquisition and the zoning directive in the ballot measure.

Fort Collins election guide: Get to know the candidates and the issues

Why vote yes on the Hughes Stadium ballot measure?

PATHS representatives and proponents of the ballot measure say the Hughes site has unique preservation value because of its proximity to the foothills and the city’s Maxwell and Pineridge natural areas.

Creating a larger contiguous open space could provide a migration path for deer, coyotes and other mammals to move between the foothills and lower-elevation areas, said Mark De Gregorio, retired conservation education director at Rocky Mountain National Park and longtime representative on Larimer County’s parks and open lands advisory boards. He is not a member of PATHS.

He added that the area has already started to bounce back since the stadium’s demolition and that it could ultimately be home to a variety of plant species, nesting birds, prairie dogs and raptors.

“The opportunities follow each other in terms of wildlife and plants as they migrate in recolonized areas,” he said. “It’s not a wilderness area, and it’s not Rocky Mountain National Park or anything like that. But there is a lot to be said for urban wildlife and watchable wildlife, and that’s a big opportunity that the Hughes property presents.”

Keeping the land open would also preserve a broader buffer between the foothills and housing developments, prevent light pollution in the area, and preserve an area where many Fort Collins residents have enjoyed recreating since Hughes Stadium was demolished. Many proponents of the ballot measure would also like to see a few acres of the land used as a location for the Northern Colorado Wildlife Center, which has been searching for a piece of land to use for wildlife rehabilitation.

Opinion: Developing Hughes Stadium land provides no guarantees for Fort Collins

Sierra Club’s Poudre Canyon group and Save the Poudre director Gary Wockner have endorsed a “yes” vote on the Hughes ballot measure.

PATHS representatives add that open space is an integral part of Fort Collins’ tourism economy. If CSU agrees to sell the land to Fort Collins, the city could pay for it with money from its dedicated tax revenue streams, which typically generate about $13 million a year for open space, parks, trails, parks and natural areas. That would create an opportunity cost for open space and parks in other areas, but proponents of the ballot measure see the Hughes land as worth it.

PATHS representative Sarah Rossiter said she sees the Hughes land as an opportunity for a “21st Century legacy project” for Fort Collins.

“Imagine it’s 50 years from now, and 70,000 more people live here, and we have 165 acres of natural open space inside city limits,” she said.

Open spaces, more so than urban parks, are essential to understanding “the value of what it means to be situated in an ecosystem in nature on the planet, that sense of connectedness and wonder,” she added.

PATHS also criticizes many aspects of CSU’s plan for the land, which would bring more vehicles to the area and put more pressure on infrastructure in the western part of the city. They’re skeptical that the affordable units would be income-restricted and that the for-sale units, which CSU representatives say would be priced at or below market value, would be accessible to CSU employees. They also argue a transit center would be better suited for a more central area of town and that, because of the site’s proximity to the foothills, vehicle emissions from the transit center would create pronounced air quality issues in an area that already has worse air quality than the rest of the city.

PATHS representatives know Fort Collins’ effort to buy the land from CSU may not be successful. They say their goal is simply to keep the land as open space, which would honor its origins as Native American tribal lands and live up to CSU’s land acknowledgement.

Why vote no on the Hughes Stadium ballot measure?

CSU isn’t officially opposing the ballot measure, but its plan for the land is clearly at odds with PATHS’ vision. The proposed development takes an “all of the above” approach, including about 70 acres of noncontinuous open space on the 165-acre property as well as a transit center, child care facility, urgent care center and commercial space. The open space would include the existing Aggie Greens disc golf course, a new community park and an undeveloped area on the west edge of the property.

The affordable units would be income-restricted and designed to meet housing need for CSU’s lower-income employees who make less than 80% of the area median income, said Brett Anderson, special assistant to CSU Chancellor Tony Frank. CSU has also discussed giving employees the first opportunity to purchase the homes for sale on the site.

Stand With CSU, the issue committee opposing the ballot measure, said in a statement the negatives of the measure far outweigh any possible benefits. 

“Fort Collins has a housing affordability problem,” the statement read. “CSU is planning to build attainable housing on this property. That would be lost.”  

Opinion: For a more diverse, inclusive Fort Collins, let CSU develop Hughes land

The Fort Collins Board of Realtors opposes the ballot measure and supports CSU’s development proposal because it would get the city closer to its affordable housing goal (the city needs 700 more affordable units); reduce vehicle commuting by CSU employees who currently drive to campus and increase alternative forms of transit in the community; and provide community benefits to the west side of town.

“The proposal is the compromise between the needs and wants of the citizens by providing the development required to help fulfill the city’s housing goals while maintaining the open space desire by so many of its residents,” the board’s position statement reads.

Anderson told the Coloradoan in January that CSU remains committed to its plan despite the ballot measure.

“We think that the benefit to our employees, to the community, is so significant,” he said. “That’s our end game.”

CSU’s commitment to its development plan raises the distinct possibility that the university system won’t be willing to sell its land. And besides, opponents of the ballot measure point out — the city and CSU already tried and failed to strike a deal.

Zoning the land as open space would also mean that CSU would miss out on the $14 million it expects to make from the development. The result of the ballot measure, then, could be not a large new open space but rather a messy lawsuit funded by taxpayers.

The Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce is recommending a “no” vote on the ballot measure, in part because its leaders see it as a violation of individual property rights.

“We believe that this ballot issue directly violates this most basic right in a free society by forcing an unwilling seller to have their property acquired by an unwilling buyer,” the chamber position statement reads. “The precedence that this kind of action sets is extremely concerning and certainly inspires the question — is your property next?”

Fort Collins’ Natural Areas department previously recommended against a city attempt to purchase the site, citing the high price and the proximity of other natural areas that provide wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities for residents. It would cost an estimated $3.5 to $4 million to return the land to a state of natural vegetation and build a trail loop, bathroom, parking lot and other infrastructure, the city estimates. The resulting price tag would leave the city strapped for cash to spend on land acquisition for parks and open space in other parts of the city and county.

Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.