Grand Junction voters get say in zoning dispute

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

Grand Junction voters will have a say in a lengthy zoning dispute that has implications for private property rights as well as recreational development along the Colorado River.

Referred Measure A on the mail-in ballot asks voters whether or not to uphold light industrial and industrial office zoning for two parcels Brady Trucking owns along the north side of the Colorado river near 27 1/2 and C 1/2 roads east of downtown.

If voters approve the measure, the company plans to proceed with expanded operations on the property. If the measure is defeated, the dispute will go back to the Grand Junction City Council and could result in a different zoning.

Supporters of the measure say the stakes go beyond the zoning to include private property rights and the future of efforts to attract businesses and jobs to the area. Opponents question whether or not the industrial zoning is compatible with a long-term version for the riverfront, including the proposed Las Colonias Park.

Brady Trucking recently conducted a press conference and open house to show the land in question, the extent to which the company has cleaned it up and their plans for commercial and recreational development along the riverfront.

A coalition of business groups that included the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, Industrial Development Inc., Western Colorado Contractors Association and West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association joined in the event.

“It is really important for people to come out and see what is being proposed,” said Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the chamber. “This is an issue where the voters can support good jobs and the development of trails. It’s not an either-or situation.”

Chuck Johnson, vice president and general manager of Brady Trucking, said the site looks much different now than when the company purchased it in 2006.

“This land was the site of a rendering plant that had been out of business for a long time,” Johnson said. “In remediating the site, we had to deal with decay, vandalism, asbestos removal, animal contamination, an old holding pond, buildings that had to be torn down and removed, you name it.”

“We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get it to this point, and are prepared to spend thousands more to expand and build our business on it,” he added.

Brady Trucking initially planned to double the size of an operation primarily hauling sands used in hydraulic fracturing. While Brady Trucking expected to create 50 to 60 new jobs, the company still plans to increase staffing by 15 to 20 despite a downturn in the local energy sector, Johnson said.

Expansion plans for the property also include development of a walking and biking trail inside a 50-foot-wide easement along the river as well as fencing and landscaping. “If their goal is a riverfront walkway, we have done that in our proposed expansion,” Johnson said.

Schwenke said, “Brady’s development plans show that we can enjoy a good quality of life and at the same time create good paying jobs that average $70,000 per year. What would we as a community be willing to give up to attract this kind of business and job opportunity? And yet here we have a private company that is willing and eager to provide that opportunity and actually enhance the riverfront’s recreational opportunities at the same time.”

Brady Trucking purchased 13 acres of land along the Colorado River at the end of 27 1/2 Road southeast of downtown Grand Junction in 2006. The property was located in Mesa County, but annexed into the city so the company could build on the site.

The two parcels were zoned for heavy industrial use when they were located in the county. Following the annexation, the City Council approved light industrial and industrial office zoning, allowing Brady to begin expansion.

Soon after, however, residents petitioned the city to rescind the zoning decision and change it to mixed use. The ensuing legal battle has delayed Brady’s expansion plans for several years. In September, the council voted to refer the issue to city voters.

At the press conference and open house, business owners, organizations and residents expressed support for Brady Trucking and the ballot measure.

Mike Anton, a member of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association said the recession and slow recovery have been hard on the region. “We applaud Chuck Johnson and Brady Trucking for sticking with the Grand Valley and their willingness to provide jobs.”

Edward Gardner, owner of Whitewater Building Materials also located south of downtown Grand Junction, said a yes vote would “stand up for a business’ rights to perform their business and provide jobs and tax revenue to the community.”

Mike Foster, a commercial real estate agent in Grand Junction, said businesses like Brady Trucking make contributions to the community and school district. In fact, businesses pay four times more in property taxes than residences because of a state constitutional amendment, Foster said.

Foster also characterized businesses like Brady Trucking as a “good neighbors,” noting the easement the company is providing for a riverfront trail.

Benita Phillips, president of the Western Colorado Congress of Mesa County, the organization behind the initial petition drive to rescind the industrial zoning approval, said she doesn’t know if the group now holds an official position on the issue.

But Phillips said she’s upset the city didn’t purchase the land when it was available. “According to the riverfront vision, the land in question is a lynchpin between Los Colonias Park to the west, and state land to the east,” she said.

Phillips said she personally opposes the ballot measure. And if it were to pass, there is “nothing to say that there will not be another lawsuit,” she said.

Phillips said she’s been working with Brady Trucking on a transaction in which the city would buy land adjacent to the company’s property away from the riverfront and then swap that land for the 13 acres along the riverfront.

“Brady doesn’t even want this land,” she said.

Johnson said that was only partly true. “To her credit, Ms. Phillips has been diligently working with us to see if there is an alternative that would satisfy all parties.” Johnson said company is willing to “look at any offer that will allow us to recoup our costs and still expand our operation.”

But he said it’s unfair to say Brady Trucking doesn’t want the property. “We bought it, we have invested in it and we have a vision and a plan for it.”

“The take-away is, are property rights secure or can a very small and vocal group raise an issue so that the zoning comes under question after the fact?” he asked.

Schwenke agreed, adding that much is riding on the outcome of the election for the business community and overall economy in the region. “If Ref. A is approved, the resulting message to prospective employers is that this city values jobs and efforts made by businesses to be good corporate citizens.”

And if the result is a no vote? “I would not want the job of trying to attract new business to the community if the answer was ‘no,’” Schwenke said.