By Kevin Flynn
Many folks on the eastern Plains say the proposed "Super Slab" toll road will steal their rural lifestyle, their homes and their land over their dead bodies.
For most, that's figurative. For a few, it may be literal.
The Super Slab is super controversial in rural communities where residents value independence, private property and the Second Amendment. The plan calls for a $2 billion, privately financed toll road and rail corridor from Fort Collins to Pueblo, parallel to the Front Range.
The idea has been around for 20 years, but it has been generating a lot of heat lately because of a bill in the legislature that would smooth a few bumps in its financing. The bill is scheduled for a Senate committee hearing Tuesday.
Opponents have organized a campaign, largely through the Internet, to kill the proposal. Chief among their concerns is that its private investors have the right of eminent domain - property condemnation - if landowners don't want to sell.
The plan is being spearheaded by Ray Wells, former manager of the Denver Technological Center, and unidentified investors. They want to build a four-lane highway, including plazas for fuel, food and lodging, and a double-track railroad mainline.
The highway is aimed at truckers and motorists willing to pay for an uninterrupted 85-mph-speed-limit road that avoids all urban congestion. The tracks would take interstate coal trains out of Front Range cities, cutting pollution, noise and congestion.
Rep. Richard Decker, R-Fountain, supports the project. That's made him a target of opponents, whose shouts at one community meeting led Decker to walk out.
"I've always come out on what I thought was in the best interests of my constituents," Decker said. "If the project goes forward, I want to see that it's done right."
Along each side of the 660-foot right of way for the road and tracks, developers want a one-mile no-development buffer strip. Wells would pay property owners for so-called conservation rights to that buffer.
That means the owners would retain the land and use of it for farming or ranching, but they would forfeit any right to develop it. The no-build buffer would protect residents from growth, but also would ensure Wells less competition for services along the road.
No one knows yet exactly where the concrete and asphalt would go. In 1985, Wells filed a legal document akin to a mining claim on a 12-mile-wide corridor, starting in Larimer County and slicing through Weld, Adams, Arapahoe, Elbert, El Paso and Pueblo counties.
Wells doesn't own any of the land yet. The claim allows him only to keep anyone else from building a toll road within that corridor.
Opponents are suspicious of the secrecy surrounding the company's investors, and they are hopping mad over a private profit-making entity being able to condemn their land just like the government. The rhetoric matches the tempers.
"These people need to understand that we will not back down, under any circumstances," said Brian Cooper, of Peyton, webmaster of www.superslab.org, which has rallied folks against the proposal.
"Nobody wants to see a bloodbath, but these people don't have a very good pulse on the type of people that live out here. We're loners, and we are patriots. Most of the Colorado militia lives out here.
"I get e-mails from little old ladies saying that they went out and bought a new shotgun, and that's just the little old ladies. Some of what I am hearing from the men is unprintable."
Indeed, the comments section of superslab.org has some ominous messages.
"They'll confiscate my land by 'eminent domain' or whatever the heck they call it, over my dead body," a Peyton man wrote.
"You come try to steal my land and you will find out why we believe in the Second Amendment!" a person from Ellicott wrote.
And from a Calhan writer:
"If they try to take my land away from me and my family by 'eminent domain' it will be their 'eminent demise.' If they step foot on my land, it'll be a new angle on the 'Make My Day' law! You get my drift?"
Most of the opposition is not as strident. Cable magnate John Malone argued that it is bad public policy to allow a private venture to condemn land without the same open public process governments must use.
Malone owns about 65,000 acres of Elbert County open space that he said he wants to conserve.
"Clearly, these plans could be severely impacted by a road project that is purely profit motivated, ignoring other important societal values such as conservation," he wrote in opposition to the plan.
Citizens of Adams, Elbert, Pueblo and Weld counties also are organizing opposition.
Patty Sward, of Elizabeth, said it's unthinkable that a private company could force the sale of property for a roadway that the Colorado Department of Transportation said last fall wasn't financially feasible.
Oddly enough, the consultant Wells used to make his case is the same one who did the CDOT study.
"This private corporation is seeking eminent domain rights over a 212-mile-by-12-mile stretch of Colorado without adequate public hearing, disclosure of business plans or business partners," Sward said.
In Bennett, Cindy Bulinski bought her land seven years ago and built a house on it five years ago.
"Our first gut reaction was that we moved to the country and now they're going to bring the city to us," she said. "This is not good for Colorado growth issues."
Opponents are planning to swarm into Denver on Tuesday for the Senate committee hearing on House Bill 1030. One group is renting buses.
The bill sailed through the House last month, 62-3. The no votes came from Democrats, two from Denver and one from Boulder County.
The bill would have CDOT set the Super Slab's toll rates instead of each county's commissioners. That would provide a single, consistent rate through all the counties.
The bill also would make it easier for Wells' company to sell off its assets, making it more appealing to investors. Opponents mistrust this provision, seeing it as a back-door entry to development.
"You don't make the money off a $10 toll from Fort Collins to Pueblo," said Rep. Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, one of the lawmakers who voted against the plan. "You make the money from building a Holiday Inn or a Super Wal-Mart along the way."
"It could bring massive growth and urban sprawl," said Rep. Jerry Frangas, D-Denver. "I read some of the stuff about condemnation and thought, 'Well, if they were going to do this in north Denver, I'd sure want someone to stand up for me.' "
Wells has said the project can go forward without the bill.
Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, the Senate sponsor of the bill, has lined up a few amendments to address some of the resident complaints.
"They're in response to different questions that we've had," she said.
One change would establish a citizens task force to monitor the project. But the basic concern of residents - property condemnation - is not addressed.
Some opponents think killing the bill would deny Wells the right of condemnation. Not so. He already has that authority under a 123-year-old law that allows private firms that build roads and utilities to condemn land, his spokeswoman said.
The 1882 statute permitted Gen. William Jackson Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs, to acquire land for his Pikes Peak Toll Road. It's the law that allows companies such as Xcel Energy, Qwest or enterprises that build roads, ditches, reservoirs, pipelines, bridges, tunnels and electric or telephone lines to condemn easements or rights of way from unwilling sellers.
Decker said communities couldn't function without private companies having such rights.
"You can't make a phone call or turn on a light or fill your bathtub without enjoying the benefits of eminent domain used by private companies," he said.
Wells' spokeswoman Ellen Dumm said the plan will receive plenty of public perusal. Wells' contract with investors precludes him from identifying them until after the legislation is passed, she said.
Dumm said the highway will follow the easiest path: the fewest hills, the smallest environmental impact and the most willing sellers.
"There's plenty of ground still available," she said. "There are lots of people out there who want to sell, especially the conservation rights."
But the opposition is dug in for a fight.
"All means of nonviolent action will be taken first," Cooper said. "If all legal avenues are exhausted, but to no avail, then it's no-holds- barred.
"What we are saying is that drastic times demand drastic measures. If we have our land stolen, then we will resort to drastic measures. How drastic remains to be seen."
'Super Slab' slate
Players in the debate:
- Ray Wells, 71, Castle Rock, former manager of Denver Tech Center and driving force behind the project.
- Richard Decker, 67, Fountain, state representative for the district that includes eastern El Paso County, where part of the road would go.
- Brian Cooper, 47, Peyton, webmaster of Superslab.org, a Web site organizing opposition to the project.
Toll road facts:
- What: "Super Slab," or Front Range Toll Road and freight rail line
- How much: $2 billion in private funds
- Where: 210-mile corridor on eastern Plains from Fort Collins to Pueblo, parallel to Interstate 25
- Why: To take truck, train and other traffic off congested Front Range freeways
- How: Buying 660-foot path for road and tracks, plus conservation rights to one-mile buffer on each side. Condemnation possible if sellers are unwilling.
- What's next: State Senate Transportation Committee hearing on HB 1030, which would make some changes to the way private toll roads are done, 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Capitol's Old Supreme Court Chamber
Rocky Mountain News: www.RockyMountainNews.com