However you describe LifeBridge Church’s Union project, never call it the city of Longmont versus the Lord. The battle over a giant planned unit development on the outskirts of the city is not about the Almighty. It’s about the almighty dollar. So when you look at the 348 acres near the intersection of Weld County roads 26 and 3 1/2, don’t think separation of church and state.
Think separation of church and real estate. For good measure, toss in a city council’s comeuppance from its constituents.
The LifeBridge PUD, with its 300 to 700 homes, 680,000-square-foot commercial development, 150,000-square-foot sports center, and million square feet of religious and civic use, may yet be built on what are now hay and corn fields bounded by dirt roads. But if this project is built as part of Longmont, it’ll be constructed on the people’s terms, not the dictates of politicians or the desires of a mega-church’s development arm.
Jen Gartner and Doug Wray saw to that.
Longmont City Council ignored Gartner’s request to delay an August vote on annexing 348 acres in the LifeBridge project. So she, Wray and others gathered more than 6,000 signatures in protest.
The city determined that “at least 4,725″ of those were valid, far more than the 4,021 needed to force council to overturn the approval or send the issue to voters (it opted for the latter). “It was a great grassroots’ effort done with no experience or money,” Gartner says. “This is the first time this has happened in Longmont. The Union project will be a major issue in the (Nov. 6) mayor’s race and other council races.”
That’s because the city still cannot specifically spell out Longmont’s financial risks in the venture. Despite the lack of detail, it voted 6-1 in favor of the proposal.
“The council could have avoided this by delaying the vote on the Union project until we had more information,” Gartner says. “It seemed almost punitive (to protesters) to vote the way (council) did. But it is better to have to pay for a special election than to pay unknown millions down the line.”
That added election cost may be tiny, however, as Longmont will piggy back the vote on special election early next year to fill the council seat vacated by the winner of the mayor’s race between Karen Benker and Roger Lange. Even if the annexation is overturned, LifeBridge, through its development arm, 4C, can still build the project in Weld County. The development rules in Weld are less restrictive than in Longmont. But there is a single critical advantage that being in the city offers LifeBridge: “We would pay less for water,” 4C spokesman Martin Dickey says.
Tens of millions less, says Benker, the sole ‘no’ vote on the annexation: “I asked the head of public works how much money we were talking about. He told me they would save $14 million to $23 million.”
Meanwhile, Benker, a state budget analyst, questions whether revenues paid by 4C can offset the $890,000 Longmont will spend annually to service the development. Which leads back to Gartner and Wray, who feel job one was getting the financial monkey off Longmont’s back. Or at least making sure that monkey didn’t turn out to be a 500-pound gorilla.
“If they had just planned to build a church, we wouldn’t be here,” says Gartner, a 31-year-old lawyer. “But in South Bend, Indiana, there is a lawsuit right now by residents in a neighborhood where people want to be tax-exempt because a church built and manages their homes.”
Some homes in the Union project are projected to cost $800,000 to more than $2 million each. “I’m a born-again Christian,” Wray says. “But I was always told I’d get a mansion in Heaven, not here.”
The thought resonated.
Although the backlash is primarily economic and environmental, there are residents concerned about a mega-church’s attempts to expand far beyond the spiritual. Some folks worry Longmont could turn into a smaller version of Colorado Springs.
“Unholy Union,” Wray calls it.
For now, though, the battle isn’t Longmont versus the Lord. It is a battle over water rights, retail estimates and tax-exempt land. It’s a fight over paving dirt roads into commercial arteries.
Without working these things out to people’s satisfaction, most developments wouldn’t have a prayer of approval. The reason why has come as a harsh reminder to Longmont politicians and LifeBridge church elders: The Ten Commandments are about G-O-D, not P-U-D.?