Will Denver Mayor Hancock’s plan for major development around the Denver International Airport ever take flight?  Hancock, who entered office preaching about regional cooperation, is now embroiled in embarrassing public turbulence triggered by his disregard for public land-use restrictions around the airport.   Hancock has pitted himself against a determined group of Adams County elected officials, informally led by Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan, a Republican who appears committed to not let Hancock run roughshod over his constituents’ interests.

For more than a year, Hancock has preached his vision for an “airport city” on and around the 50 square miles of land where DIA sits, a plan that violates a longstanding agreement with surrounding jurisdictions on the use of DIA property that Adams County voters allowed Denver to annex as part of the development of the airport.  Local leaders in Aurora,Thronton, and other towns recently sent a letter to Hancock as formal notice of their concern about the mayor getting out over his skis regarding the city’s his plans at the site.

Here is the problem:  in the 1980s, Adams County allowed the city of Denver to annex a large amount of prime development land for the airport, but the land was not for a specific economic purpose, but rather to serve as a buffer between airport operations and neighboring communities.  One of the motivations for the development of the new airport was encroachment on the airport in Stapleton, and planners hoped to avoid creating a similar situation.

Adams County allowed the annexation to happen, but the purpose – the land’s use as a buffer zone – was critical to the agreement to surrender the land.  This is an important point, because if Denver decides to go froward with extensive commercial development on DIA property (such as an “airport city”), Adams County and its towns would be left in a terrible situation:  they have invested millions in infrastructure to support business around the airport, but almost none of the associated revenue would accrue to Adams County businesses or government, as significantly all of the economic activity would be technically conducted within Denver.

To address this problem, an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) was reached in 1988 that restricted Denver from developing the land in such a way the the new infrastructure and businesses would compete with activity in the areas immediately surrounding the airport property.

A full month after the Adams County letter was sent to Hancock (a reply was requested in a week), the mayor responded with a proposal to create a special taxing district in the area.  The mayor’s letter also made the bold statement that the IGA allows for commercial development on airport property. From Hancock’s letter:

“While we continue to believe that the 1988 Intergovernmental Agreement allows for commercial activities on DIA property, similar to projects occurring at airports around the nation, we propose this revenue sharing approach in order to achieve certainty, clarity, and broad regional support for on-airport development.”

Hogan wasted little time in issuing a public reply to Hancock this week, telling the Denver Post:

“I am not slapping Mayor Hancock for trying, but this is not it.  I am looking for a true revenue-sharing deal, and this is not it. This is an expense-sharing deal.”

Hancock’s tepid response makes him appear to be more like the playground bully than the regional leader that he aspired to be.