June 28, 2024

Boulder Chamber opposes airport closure proposal

BOULDER — The Boulder Chamber is staking out a position in opposition to a ballot measure that would decommission Boulder Municipal Airport for the purpose of building below-market-rate housing on the site. 

“There seems to be a huge rush to go to the ballot before we know what the actual consequences are of decommissioning the airport,” Jonathan Singer, chamber senior director of policy programs, told BizWest Friday. “By all indications, decommissioning of the airport could be a very costly mistake that would hurt the city and our community to the tune of tens of millions of dollars over many years.”

The Boulder City Clerk’s office verified that a pair of separate but complementary petitions — Repurpose Our Runways and Runways to Neighborhoods — received enough signatures to appear on the November ballot. 

The Boulder Chamber is opposed specifically to Repurpose Our Runways, the ballot measure that seeks to decommission and close the airport. Runways to Neighborhoods, should the first measure pass, would require the city to build housing on the site. 

“As a backstop, we’re also supporting the second ballot initiative that says if the airport were to be decommissioned, we do think affordable housing would be a reasonable approach,” Singer said. 

The soonest the airport, which is tucked away on about 180 city-owned acres between neighborhoods and business parks in east Boulder, could be closed is 2042, so any new homes on the site are likely at least two decades away from welcoming their first occupants.

The idea of closing the airport has proved controversial, as housing advocates argue that move would offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide below-market housing that’s accessible to the type of middle-class worker who can’t afford a million-dollar-plus home and doesn’t qualify for traditional subsidized housing, while airport supporters say a closure would be shortsighted and would result in a costly legal battle with the federal government. 

“We’re really going to get the message out there that this is not good for affordable housing. It’s not good for the economy,” Singer said. “We have some pretty amazing primary and secondary businesses that operate out of the airport. And (closing the airport) presents a public safety risk in terms of being able to respond to wildfires and floods in a place where we know we’re prone to both of those things.”

The city is “at a crossroads. We have an opportunity right now to re-examine land use at the airport site,” the Airport Neighborhood campaign, which supports both petitions, urges on its website. “We need to seize this moment to reconsider how these 179 acres of public land can best contribute to the Boulder of the future. Now is the time to reach the voters of Boulder with a vision of new neighborhoods that are affordable to our families, nurses, teachers, fire-fighters, police officers, day care workers, elder care workers, and other essential workers and service workers.”

While there are certainly critics, the concept of the city decommissioning BDU and selling the land at below-market rates to developers who would pledge to build “missing-middle” housing — homes for workers who wouldn’t qualify for government housing subsidies, but can’t afford entry-level market-rate units — has caught on with some Boulder officials, and the idea is being evaluated by city staff. 

But is the idea feasible? Some argue that it isn’t.

The FAA’s “policy (is) to strengthen the national airports system and not to support the closure of public airports,” according to a letter to city staff from John Bauer, the FAA’s Denver Airports District manager. “The FAA has rarely approved an application to close a federally obligated airport. Such approvals were granted only in highly unusual circumstances where closing the airport provided a benefit to civil aviation such as funding a replacement airport in the community.”

Boulder Municipal Airport, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s 2020 Colorado Aviation Economic Impact Study, the most recent dataset of its kind, supports 299 jobs and is responsible for nearly $97.8 million in total economic impact. That metric includes payroll, business revenues and contributions to gross regional product from both on-site businesses and visitors who travel through BDU.

Now that the petitions have been certified, the Boulder City Council has a chance to weigh in on the next steps. Here, according to the City Clerk’s office, are the potential outcomes:

  • Council places the measure (closing the airport for the purpose of building homes) on the ballot as an initiated measure.
  • Council proposes amendments to the measure and the committee (the groups that brought forward the petitions) agrees; it is placed on the ballot as a referred measure.
  • Council decides to adopt the measure and it does not go to the ballot.
  • Council decides to amend the measure and the committee does not agree with the amendments. Both measures are placed on the ballot as competing measures.

The Boulder Chamber is staking out a position in opposition to a ballot measure that would decommission Boulder Municipal Airport for the purpose of building below-market-rate housing on the site. 

Lucas High
A Maryland native, Lucas has worked at news agencies from Wyoming to South Carolina before putting roots down in Colorado.
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