The "Gray Area" of Mixed Transit Development

ColoradoBiz Magazine, the state’s largest business magazine, has a lengthy treatment of the city of Denver’s Regional Transportation District’s FasTracks project and places it into some context. The RTD is threatening property owners with eminent domain in order to amass land around transportation hubs, so new urban centers will be created.

Normally eminent domain used for a public transit project would be considered a traditional public use, but RTD’s plans to seize land for not only transit lines but for mixed use development around those lines makes the situation much more complicated. A few years ago, eminent domain abuse was not uncommon in the state because of the state’s broad definition of public use. In 2006, the state passed reform that somewhat limited that definition but still left loopholes. RTD’s plans for transit-oriented development seems to have slipped through those loopholes and officials seem to be aware of it.

For example, RTD’s CEO denies they are seizing land for private development but then says that they would consider a private developer’s plans to build on land seized by eminent domain–all he would need to include were a few parking spaces for RTD.

Property owners are, not surprisingly, highly suspicious and getting organized. Despite officials’ protestations to the contrary, it appears that eminent domain is being used to further private economic development:

The West Line — now at a price tag of $707 million, up 11 percent from original estimates — rolls by Steve Fesch’s property and then winds through Lakewood, mainly following Colfax Avenue until it ends at the Jefferson County Government Center in Golden. Along the way, the line passes Kim Snyder and Galen Foster’s home and window-tinting business one block from the proposed Wadsworth station.

“This used to be a cherry orchard,” Snyder says, sweeping her hands to include the glass-fronted bookshelves, star-gazing telescope and leather furniture that encompass her cozy living room behind the business. “We’ve been here for 24 years. They want to take it just as my blossoms are ready and worth something, to reap the seeds I’ve sown.”

Hit with an acquisition notice in the mail from RTD last year, Snyder says her emotions have ranged from depression and anxiety to spine-hardening anger. “I try to be strong, but I fall apart all the time,” Snyder says. “The fight keeps me going. In the end, there’s no shame in losing, only for not fighting for what you believe in.”

Snyder’s weariness from the couple’s fight with the Goliath-like RTD shows as her blue eyes well with tears. “I want them to see me as a person and not as a development project.”

Saying she’s “closer to the end than the beginning,” Snyder, 52, says now she doesn’t know what will happen to their lives. “James Madison would be turning in his grave if he saw the way the Bill of Rights is being interpreted.”

If RTD successfully acquires the property, it will become part of Lakewood’s transit mixed-used zone district, an intensely developed urban core anchored by the Wadsworth station. But at a block away, Snyder isn’t convinced RTD needs her property for the actual transit station; instead she says the property will be sold to a developer.

“It’s RTD’s dirty little secret. The city of Lakewood is facilitating RTD and vice versa,” Snyder says. “I am sitting on boardwalk and they want it. Everybody wins here except the little guy.”

The rest can be found here.