Of Proposition 112 & High Grade Road

  • Posted: September 13, 2018
  • Category: Blog
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I happen to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I should thank God everyday for this blessing, but I have my full share and more of human weakness. But even the Garden of Eden had a snake in residence. I, or to be honest about it, my wife, has to go to the grocery store on a road infested with bicycles and the people who ride them. We live in an area on the lower part of a paved two lane road with many blind and hairpin curves climbing into the mountains. Over the road’s 11 miles, it climbs from an elevation of 6,000 ft to nearly 9,000 ft. On a typical Saturday, there might be 100 bicycles heading up the mountain at any one time along that length. It is a spectacular road for serious cyclists offering spectacular views of mountain scenery.

Obviously this road, known as High Grade Road, was an expensive road to build – and is an expensive road to maintain. While it is a paved road, it has a gravel shoulder that time and chance seem to move onto the road’s paved surface. Gravel and the narrow tires of bicycles are not a good mix, so it is not unusual to see street sweepers making their way up and down the road. Given the large number of bicycles using it and its gravel shoulders, the road department does what it can to keep people out of Emergency Rooms.

Surprisingly enough, the road wasn’t built for bicyclists, but for cars. There are a lot of people living in this particular stretch of the foothills and for some reason they seem to feel a need to get into the city. High Grade Road is the way. Most of us just need groceries or to commute but even survivalists need guns and ammo from time to time. Given the realities of mountain living and the mix of people who live there, many of the vehicles making their way up and down this road are pickups, big pickups.

As you might guess, mountain dwelling red necks in big pickups and self-righteous urban bicycle riders are an uneasy mix. To be sure, most of the motorists and bicyclists are good citizens, acting courteously most of the time. But it is not unusual to see bicyclists doing what we have all seen bicyclists do. There are several road signs asking for bicyclists to share the road and ride single file, but its only natural to want to talk to that cute rider with the bouncing pony tail you have been following for the past mile. And the cavalier attitude of bicycle riders towards the basics of traffic courtesy is the stuff of legend.

What goes up the mountain must come down the mountain and the hard work of climbing High Grade Road is rewarded with the adrenalin rush of going down High Grade Road. Riding a bicycle at 35-45 mph down a winding mountain road makes a heart beat fast. Of course at that speed you have to ride in the middle of the lane, sometimes even in the other lane on hard curves if you are trying to beat last years best time.

Given the rush of adrenalin that comes with the ride downhill, it is only natural that a rider on a natural high might flip off some impatient driver seeking to pass or be inconsiderate enough to be in the other lane as he rockets around the blind curve. Not to be outdone in thoughtful appreciation of other users, some drivers think it a hoot to spin their tires on the gravel shoulders of curves. This courtesy throws gravel on the pavement at turns allowing some speeding bicyclist on pencil thin tires to experience even more of a thrill.

We’re just human beings and I guess this is just what we do. While I prefer to travel High Grade Road in a car rather than on a bicycle seat, I do attend a spin class. For those unfamiliar with this affectation of the sedentary class, a spin class might be thought of as sticking your finger into one of those old school pencil sharpeners and turning the crank. We sit on stationary bicycles riding up and down imaginary hills while listening to relentlessly cheerful spin instructors against a throbbing noise background of loud upbeat dance music slowly liquefying our brains.

Do this often enough and you get to know your fellow masochists, as well as the relentlessly cheerful spin instructor and her circle of acolytes. They are nice people, though I expect we might occupy slightly different points on the political spectrum. But everyone is “just regular folks” and a social circle forms, at least among those of us prone to forming social circles.

But it is a fact that most of the people in spin class are serious about cycling, real cycling not the ersatz experience of spin class. Every once in awhile, the conversation turns to the latest effort by the bicycling community to make things better for bicyclists. Most of the time, this involves keeping some stretch of roadway free from development. It turns out that serious bicyclists like to be outdoors taking in the virginal version of Mother Nature. But they also like to be riding on good roads with wide well swept shoulders through open countryside.

Don’t we all? That’s why we live in Colorado after all. Some of the folk in our spin class don’t just talk about it, they actively work to keep metro Denver and especially, its mountainous foothill communities, friendly to bicycles and their riders. Reduced to its bare essentials, keeping things friendly for bicycles and their riders involves good roads and no development. We should probably applaud these involved citizens. After all, that’s democracy in action.

But as everyone who came before the Baby Boomers understood, democracy is a fragile institution – an uneasy peace between those who pay and those who benefit. The Founding Fathers, those realistic idealists, those marble statues with feet of clay, understood us, even the ones living 250 years later and on Facebook. We like the good life, modern conveniences with plenty of open space, but we would rather someone else pay for it. We are idealists, all about investing our time and money in making the world a better place, but we ourselves are limited in what we can do. Don’t you know we have mortgages and car payments right now.

The Founding Fathers knew us and did their best to construct a government that constrained our true nature. But it was my own generation, the Baby Boomers that began to shake off their foolish limitations on our happiness. There were a lot of us in the Boomer cohort and we wanted it now. There were a lot of us, business lusted for our dollars and they found a way to give it to us – now. In our defense, the Depression and WWII had worn out our parents. It was a brave new world and they just wanted us to be happy.

So my generation began to lose touch with hard cash and the idea of paying for things. We knew we couldn’t afford our preferred lifestyle now, maybe never, but the market was willing to give it to us anyway. We got cars and other toys. We got houses and we update them every few years, just like HGTV taught us to. We became a culture of mice in squirrel cages, running to keep up. Most of the time, we kept up – most of the time anyway.

Along the way we developed a taste for better public spaces as well. Just like the market, government lusted after our votes. There were a lot of us after all. And as we all know, lack of money never seems to be a problem for the government, at least not a real problem. So we got some pretty nice public spaces as well.

Even public spaces that weren’t public spaces, spaces actually owned by other people. Understandably, we Baby Boomers wound up with a pretty expansive idea of what was ours. In our defense, who was going to tell us no? Business wanted our dollars and government wanted our votes. If somebody didn’t want to use their land in a way we didn’t like, we got used to telling them no – No Way Jose! If we liked to ride our bicycle, we got bike paths. But then we decided we liked to ride on the road, so we got bike lanes – and pretty much the roads we wanted as well.

Since that was our own experience in the world, we have passed our habits along to our children and grandchildren. We have certain standards and we want certain things. Whether we can pay for it, whether it is even ours to decide – that is not the issue. We have become accustomed to the idea that our opinion matters and should be taken into account. We are important people after all. We are citizens of the most powerful nation in the world. It is a democracy and we vote.

And so we come to High Grade Road and a great many other issues affecting life in the foothills of the Rocky Mountain communities. The bicycling community is a very loud voice in those issues. Despite the fact bicyclists contribute no monies for the purchase or maintenance of what they desire, licensing, road fees or fuel taxes, the bicycling community is a powerful lobby whose spokesmen must be taken into account and negotiated with.

Of course, who speaks for the bicycling community is a matter of some question. Is it the anonymous individual flipping me off as I make my way up High Grade Road? Is it the individual writing letters to the legislature protesting a proposed bicycle road fee of $ 25/year, that individual having just made space in his garage for his third road bike, a hi-tech $6,000 titanium/carbon fiber number? Maybe it’s the yahoo in the pickup spinning gravel onto the roadway, requiring 22 miles of street sweeping?

There is no right or wrong. There are just folks paying the bills, folks living with the annoyance and folks enjoying the benefit. They are seldom the same people. They seldom even live in the same neighborhood, let alone know each other. That fact leads to bad feelings, questionable decisions and a lot of unfocused anger.

Which brings us to a very heated issue in Colorado. This fall we are being asked to vote on a rather technical issue. The proposition is really an issue for the Legislature, or better yet the County Commissioners of the individual counties, rather than the vote of the general public. But so far the Legislature and various County Commissioners have not provided the concerned urban elites with the answers they desire. At issue is the distance required between a gas/oil well and a house. Currently, Colorado requires a 500 foot distance, known as a setback, between well and dwelling. A rather arcane question don’t you think? Perhaps we should, at the same time, vote on the proper distance between a feedlot and an organic garden? A public referendum to be voted on in November, Proposition 112, would require that existing 500 foot setback to be increased to a 2,500 foot setback.

Both sides are fighting hard and spending money. The money on both sides is coming from the usual suspects. Of course the people and companies standing to lose their oil & gas investments are spending money to defeat the Proposition. Supporting Proposition 112 on the other hand you have the united cadres of the anti-fracking industry. Colorado’s media, i.e. newspapers, television and CPR, is doing their best to inform the voters, presenting a fair and balanced view of the debate. You smiled when you read that last sentence – right?

The thing is – Proposition 112 is a lot like High Grade Road. There is no right or wrong at issue in peoples’ different ideas and uses. The Front Range of Colorado is one of the most prolific oil/gas producing areas in the United States. The Front Range, particularly its northern exurbs in the middle of that producing area, is also exploding in population. New houses are being built in areas because there are good paying jobs and in unincorporated areas where houses can be built for a price normal people with normal jobs can afford – right now that is also where the oil/gas drilling is happening. Apparently this coincidence is lost on everyone.

The oil & gas business became a villain, the people everyone is not only allowed but encouraged to hate, so long in the past that the reasons for their fall from grace are lost in the mists of time. The media has portrayed oil & gas as the portal of hell from which demons emerge for so long that most normal people have a righteous and understandable fear of the bogeyman our media culture has created. Many of the people now moving into the areas of concern, where wells and processing facilities can be seen, are cube-farmers taught to be frightened of anything that doesn’t look like an office park. Now there are these Stranger Things going on in their neighborhood.

On the other side you have folks with a lot of money at stake. The effect of a 2,500 foot setback means that the 25 times the existing land area will be off limits to oil & gas production in Colorado. It is worth pointing out the fact that various companies and/or individuals own drilling/mineral rights for this land potentially being taken out of production.

Simple math tells us that 18 acres of land are removed from production with a 500 foot setback. A 2,500 foot setback removes 450 acres from production, an additional 432 acres. Some one now owns the right to 432 acres of drilling rights that would have them taken away by government action, or at least face greatly increased time and expense in using them. Lease costs for drilling rights vary substantially, but an estimate of $2,500/acre might not be a bad guess. 432 acres at $2,500/acre is a cool million. The value for the mineral rights, the value of the oil or gas to be produced from that acreage, is several times that. That’s a bad day at the ballot box for sure.

Of course the issues and monetary losses are a lot more complicated than the simplistic picture above. Both sides will calculate the dollars lost to suit their own ends, which arbitrarily finagled numbers will simply further contribute to public cluelessness about the whole thing. Suffice it to say that the monetary losses to the companies/individuals holding these leases and mineral rights will be very large, measured in tens of billions not millions.

Given the general public’s understanding of the oil & gas business, many will think the referendum a fitting slap in the face to a horrible business, a greedy group known for raping Mother Earth as they strive to achieve their own filthy ends. Fortunately, at least for now, our legal system functions tolerably well and Mother Earth, while having standing, is still only a litigant rather than judge/jury and executioner in our courts.

When government takes away something of value from its citizens such as property or property rights, it must pay “fair market value” for those things in a process known as “condemnation”. Thus those individuals losing property rights under Proposition 112 will undoubtedly and with righteous cause sue Colorado’s government for lost property values, as well as the value of the oil & gas condemned.

As you might expect, the “fair market value” for the leases and mineral rights taken away by Proposition 112 are subject to widely varying calculations. How much does it cost to drill a well in the future, how much oil & gas would be produced from the well, what would be the future market price of oil? Condemnation hearings are beloved of lawyers and their consultants. Condemnation hearings blend economic theories with legal theories in impenetrable brambles of questionable logic and can go on for decades as due process is served.

Thus with the passage of Proposition 112, Colorado will create a great many new jobs. These jobs will be the highly sought after good ones, highly paid jobs for attorneys, judges, consultants, regulatory experts and community representatives/activists. Given the protracted nature of condemnation hearings, court cases and negotiated settlements, these new jobs will last for decades. Since the work these people will do will be concentrated in downtown Denver, it is very good news for metro Denver’s high-end real estate market.

Of course it’s not all good news on the job front. On balance Colorado will lose jobs as well, probably far more jobs than gained. But to Colorado’s good fortune, the jobs lost will not be good jobs, Adorable jobs. The job losses will be among the Deplorables; construction jobs, technician jobs, engineering jobs, the kind of people who live out in those northern exurbs. Actually by culling and upgrading Colorado’s job opportunities, by moving jobs from out in the boondocks to the urban corridors, these job losses will help relieve the environmental pressure put on the dreary prairies of Northeastern Colorado by all this growth. This trade up in our job opportunities driven by Proposition 112 will help make Colorado the state we want it to be, the state we want our kids to grow up in.

Unsaid and probably unappreciated by all the Proposition’s supporters in Boulder and the other urban centers along the Front Range is that the money to pay the attorneys, court consultants, regulatory experts and community activists will come from the taxpayers of Colorado. Unlike the Federal Government, Colorado can’t print money. Colorado’s money comes from its taxpayers and from oil & gas severance taxes/royalties. Even if the courts really shaft the owners of the leases/minerals, the owners of those lost leases and mineral rights are going to get a great deal of money from a poorer Colorado taxpayer – some years down the road.

And so this November there will be a great many people voting on a referendum, just folks participating in the democratic process. Many voters will see a chance to get rid of something they don’t like, to strike a blow for their unexamined ideals, at no cost to themselves. Many voters will worry about the loss of their investment or their job. The great majority of voters will simply be clueless, once more left hanging by a media willfully blind to its bias. All Colorado will be on the hook for a large dollop of future taxes, spent on an ill-considered crusade.

Just like bicycles on High Grade Road, there is no right or wrong. There are just folks paying the bills, folks living with the annoyance and folks enjoying the benefit. They are seldom the same people. They seldom even live in the same neighborhood, let alone know each other. There will be bad feelings, questionable decisions and a lot of unfocused anger.

This is democracy in action, but does it make sense? Why do the people demanding changes on the farmlands and prairies of Colorado seek the signatures for Proposition 112 on the 16th Street Mall of downtown Denver, among people who have no clue about the issue? Democracy is a fragile institution. When we abuse it, when we coerce its power to serve specious ends or selfish ends, when we seek benefits for us to be paid for by others, we hasten its end.

3 Responses to “Of Proposition 112 & High Grade Road”

  1. Bob Wilson says:

    Amen! Another great blog Bill. Once again you have condensed a heated, controversial issue into an understandable “tale of caution” for all sensible people. Nice job.

  2. Rex Rinne says:

    It seems to me that everyone interprets “unalienable rights” differently. Multiple definitions create chaos. Watch out for the bikers Bill. Remember, they own the road.

  3. bill messner says:

    You forgot that High Grade is also a sports car heaven!

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