Oct. 04–Northern Colorado developers are wary of the potential effects of an oil and gas-related ballot issue, with one Greeley project put on pause while the developer awaits election results.
The anxiety mirrors that of many Weld County political leaders, including six of seven Greeley City Council members, who voted Tuesday night to pass a resolution opposing Proposition 112, a measure that would increase the distance between oil and gas wells and schools, homes and bodies of water to 2,500 feet. Under the state’s current regulations, setback requirements are 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools.
Tom Morgan, owner of the Gateway Place Apartments in west Greeley, said he has everything planned out to start construction on a $32 million, 144-unit addition to the apartment complex by the spring.
But the project is temporarily on hold, he said, until he knows whether Colorado voters approve Proposition 112.
The measure is the subject of a contentious debate between the oil and gas industry, concerned about the potential impact of the measure on the industry and the economy, and proponents of the measure, who are worried about health and the proximity of oil and gas wells to homes, school and waterways.
Morgan, a California and Florida-based petroleum engineer who also owns the oil company Morgan Energy, said he purchased Gateway Place Apartments, 3750 24th St., in 1991, and a couple years later, nearby land that could be used for parking. When he purchased the land, Morgan said, he couldn’t build on it because a vertical gas well sat on the property.
When the well was plugged a few years ago, though, he said his company decided to move forward with the second phase of apartments.
Morgan said he isn’t concerned about what the regulations would mean for his project.
“The concern is that if it passes they’ll stop drilling, and the economy will collapse in Greeley,” he said.
Weld developer Martin Lind, the president and CEO of Water Valley Land Co., has the same concern. He said it’s the reason he has been vocal in opposing the measure.
“We’re obviously intimately involved in trying to defeat it, but it isn’t for the new homes sales — it’s for the purpose of the economy in general,” he said. “Anyone that owns a home in Colorado can expect a depreciating value on the property because oil and gas is a giant part of our economy.”
During a Greeley City Council meeting Tuesday, dividing lines were drawn among residents as the council voted 6-1 to approve a resolution opposing Proposition 112. Some residents said they were disappointed the council voted to oppose the ballot measure, citing concerns about the health and safety of children and older adults. Others said they were concerned about the potential effects the measure could have on the workers employed in Weld.
Councilman Robb Casseday, who voted to oppose the ballot measure, said he is concerned Greeley’s housing market is currently in a slump as developers keep an eye on the outcome of the election.
Councilman Brett Payton echoed Casseday’s concerns about the housing market, telling residents housing developments recently approved by Greeley wouldn’t be allowed operate under the standards outlined in Proposition 112.
Greeley Community Development Director Brad Mueller said building permits haven’t slowed, but he added there’s logic to that possibility because of the uncertainty around the ballot measure.
University of Northern Colorado Professor Emeritus of political science Steve Mazurana said he doesn’t expect to see a short-term slowdown in the housing market.
“There are 50,000 oil wells that are exempt through these new restrictions,” he said. “I can’t see, in the short term, a major impact on housing.”
As Election Day gets closer, Mazurana said he expects voters will reject the measure, especially with the $30.3 million of oil and gas money that has flowed in to oppose the measure as of the Oct. 1 state campaign finance filing deadline.
“They only are going to hear one side,” he said, adding the chances of the measure passing are low because proponents have raised $1.1 million in comparison. “Most people don’t even know what Proposition 112 is, and they won’t until the Blue Books come out.”
For city council members, Tuesday’s meeting, filled with a near-equal balance of proponents and opponents of Proposition 112, brought the battle over the measure front and center. After hearing 45 minutes of testimony from residents, all but one council member — Stacy Suniga — voted to oppose the proposition.
Among the residents who addressed the council Tuesday was Anne Curry, who was choked up as she spoke in support of the proposition, citing concerns about health.
Opposition for Amendment 74
During the meeting, the council also approved a resolution opposing Amendment 74, an addition to the Colorado Constitution that would require governments to give “just compensation” to property owners when regulations reduce the “fair market value” of a property.
While the measure received less airtime during the meeting, council members unanimously spoke out against the measure, saying it is too vague and would create legal battles for the city.
“It is emotional. It’s emotional for everybody,” she said, adding she is concerned about health, especially for children who live and go to school near oil and gas wells. “Their brains aren’t fully formed. They don’t get to vote or come before you. … They just get to live their lives and get sick.”
Resident Christopher Jacks said the issue should have been solved long before Proposition 112 made it to the ballot.
“Tonight represents a failure of leadership,” he said. “We should not have to be here, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, choosing between health and safety and jobs.”
Oil and gas industry representatives expressed concern about what the measure could mean for the economy and thousands of oil and gas industry jobs.
Ryan Seastrom, community outreach coordinator for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said the crowd of oil and gas workers who attended the meeting represent jobs that could be lost.
“Those are the faces of the industry and those individuals live in the communities we operate in,” he said. “Tens of thousands of jobs are at stake.”
Sarah MacQuiddy, president of the Greeley Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber opposes the measure. She highlighted the economic impact of the industry on Weld.
“It’s important that we continue to meet the increased demand for energy by wisely developing resources because it’s critical to our continued growth and our economy and the fiscal health of our community,” she said. “We’re really unapologetic about supporting the industry.”
Suniga, the lone council member to vote against the resolution, said the days leading up to the meeting have been difficult. Though she said she acknowledges the positive influences and economic impact of oil and gas on Greeley, she said she wants to ensure the activity is safe.
The issue has “deeply tormented me for the last few weeks,” she said, adding she empathized with both sides of the issue. “Even though I may be alone tonight in my vote, I must be that voice to represent the concern of these residents.”
Other council members were firm in their opposition to the ballot measure, though they said they understand concerns from both sides.
Casseday directly addressed oil and gas workers, telling them he understands their concerns about job security.
“It’s discouraging to me that you, as family members, that have kids in our schools, are neighbors of mine and the rest of our community, have to fear for losing your jobs,” he said. “I, for one, am thankful you’re here, thankful you’re in our community, my neighbors, earning wages in jobs we’re growing.”
— Sara Knuth covers government for The Tribune. You can reach her at (970) 392-4412, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SaraKnuth.
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