Denver’s Freaky Appendage

On June 8, 2010 · 5 Comments

Take a look at the shape of Denver, Colorado and you’ll notice an unusual appendage branching out from its northeast corner. Denver represents one of those infrequent hybrid situations where a city and a county combine to form a single entity within a common border. As a consequence, sometimes Denver acts like a city and sometimes it acts like a county and that can lead to interesting impacts on the local geography.

Neighborhood Map of Denver Colorado
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version

These are the neighborhoods of Denver, and I apologize for the poor rendering presented in this image. I had to reduce it down to size to fit within the margins of the blog. Feel free to open the image in another window or link to the source at Wikimedia to see the actual size with additional clarity. Regardless, the overall outline is more important for my ramblings this evening, and it’s easy enough to notice the appendage in question at the upper-right. The purpose of the appendage presents itself readily: it surrounds Denver International Airport.

Terminal at Denver International Airport

I’m in Denver this week as you may have already guessed, and this is the terminal at Denver International Airport, squarely within the boundaries of the combined Denver City/County. Adams County surrounds the airport on all sides except for a corridor that connects the facility with the remainder of Denver.

The land occupied by the airport used to be part of Adams County. It’s annexation to Denver happened only recently. Denver’s split city/county personality favors its city side when it comes to expansion plans. They had a nasty habit of grabbing land from surrounding counties until the State of Colorado stepped in. They passed legislation that blocked further expansion without approval from voters in the jurisdiction that stood to lose acreage. Even that didn’t halt expansion entirely.

The Colorado General Assembly authorized a vote in 1987 that would transfer the airport land to Denver if approved. The voters of Adams County approved it in 1988, and Denver City/County did likewise in 1989. Title passed to Denver and its territorial dimensions increased by 45 square miles. Very few county boundary changes happen in the Lower 48 United States anymore so count this among the rare instances, with quite a remarkable scale.

I’ve not been able to find a good explanation for why the voters of Adams County were amenable to ceding a big chunk of their territory. I can only find odd conspiracy theories on the Internet (along with a good debunking). If anyone knows the full story, please let me know in the comments section, below. I’m going to guess that maybe Adams County thought it would be a tax drain or a pain to operate. I’m surprised the story isn’t more readily apparent since it’s practically a current event but maybe it’s simply drowned out by the background noise of the conspiracy chatter. Adams County does have a recent history of losing territory though. It also lost a small parcel during the formation of Broomfield County in 2001. Maybe it’s just unlucky.

There is an additional odd feature: great pains were taken to append the airport to Denver’s territory but the corridor isn’t contiguous with the major road infrastructure. I think it might be possible theoretically to get from downtown Denver to the airport without ever leaving Denver City/County but it would involve neighborhood streets. The most direct route leaves Denver and clips Adams Co., as confirmed by road signage I noticed along the route yesterday afternoon.

I have a couple of other Denver geo-oddities in mind, and I hope that I can hit at least one of them this week. As usual, I have only a brief window in the evening after meetings that last the entire day. We’ll see how it goes.

On June 8, 2010 · 5 Comments

5 Responses to “Denver’s Freaky Appendage”

  1. pfly says:

    Hey, I was living in Denver during the time when the annexation occurred and the new airport was built! I knew that Denver wanted to annex the land but I never wondered why Adams County agreed. Searching just now I found a section in a book about it, at Google Books, starting on page 157:

    I’ve only skimmed it because it is late here. But it looks like the main reasons involve taxes and jobs.

    • @pfly: Yes, that’s the type of source I wish I’d been able to find before I’d written my post. I was pretty sure something like that must have been out there, so thanks for tracking it down. I particilarly enjoyed the little trivia statement burried in there: that the airport is larger than Manhattan. That really puts its enormous size into perspective.

  2. Ethan says:

    Just catching up on blogs and noticed you were in Denver. Study the municipal borders closely around the state and you will see plenty of oddities. There are several parcels in Colorado Springs that somehow are not incorporated and city boundaries flow around them. Many more where that came from.

  3. Ken Saldi says:

    I have lived in the Denver area most of my life and I want to clarify one thing. The road leading to DIA (Pena Boulevard) is part of Denver. You can stay in the City of Denver all of the way from Downtown to the Airport.

    Whenever I pick up a coworker from the Airport I always laugh at the idea that we are in Denver. It is a good 30-45 minutes drive (depending on traffic) to get to downtown.

    Another Geo-oddity is the Araphoe County Exclaves inside the City and County of Denver.

    BTW, I just found your site the other day and I have had a smaile on my face for the last couple of days catching up. Keep up the good work.


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