Archive for Sunday, April 29, 2001

SUN Boulder puts brakes on growth

April 29, 2001


By Joel Mathis

MORE: 6News Monday

Boulder, Colo. -- They're managing in this picturesque city nestled below the Flatirons. Managing booming growth, that is.

Much like Lawrence, Boulder's boom started during the postwar years with thousands of new residents drawn by Colorado University and the city's location at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. The population, 19,999 in 1950, nearly doubled during the next decade to 37,718, then nearly doubled again to 66,870 in 1970.

Then the growth slowed. That was no accident.

The city and county governments took a series of steps in the 1970s aimed at curbing nonstop growth. They:

l Adopted a comprehensive plan that put physical boundaries on the city's growth.

l Passed a tax to raise funds to buy and preserve open space around the city.

l Put a cap on the number of new homes that could be built each year.

Today, Boulder is surrounded by a veritable land moat of about 90,000 acres of open space that can never be developed, and the city is known nationally for its efforts to rein in growth.

Local proponents of those efforts say they saved Boulder's quality of life. Critics say the measures have made the city too expensive a place to live and that, in turn, has sent the population of other area towns skyrocketing. These offshoots of growth, they say, have increased traffic congestion on highways leading into the city.

Still growing

Boulder is still growing, albeit at a more leisurely pace. Eleven thousand new residents joined the city during the 1990s, compared with a 15,000-person growth in Lawrence during the same period. New residents were drawn to Boulder by a proliferation of high-tech jobs, shopping and entertainment in a downtown where the streets have been replaced by trees and walkways to create an open-air "mall" -- and, ironically, by all those acres of green space intended to fence in the city's growth.

"The interesting thing is that all the things we do to keep Boulder a nice place make people want to come here and ruin it," grouses CU professor emeritus Albert Bartlett. "The best thing we could've done to stop growth in Boulder would've been to make it the crummiest town possible."

Boulder County Commissioner Paul Danish said there was no "magic bullet" for controlling growth. Instead, it has required a range of measures, applied over decades.

"Growth control isn't rocket science. It's just hard," Danish said. "The key is, you have to be willing to say 'no' sometimes."

History of saying 'no'

Boulder residents have been saying 'no' since 1959. That's when the city council called a special election to approve a bond to finance the extension of water service to proposed subdivisions and hotels along mesas in the nearby mountains.

Bartlett helped lead a group of residents opposed to the development. That group forced an alternative measure onto the ballot, amending the city charter to prohibit the extension of city services above the so-called "blue line" at the base of the mountains.

"We won very handily," Bartlett said. Today Boulder's mountainsides remain largely undeveloped.

In the aftermath of the 1959 election, Bartlett helped start "PLAN-Boulder" a grass-roots organization devoted to addressing growth and environmental issues. The group has more than 300 members today, he said, and meets weekly.

Through the years, PLAN-Boulder has endorsed a slew of candidates for local offices and helped back a number of other efforts to curb growth:

l Passage of a 0.4-cent city sales tax in 1967 to buy and maintain open space around the city. In 1989, voters approved an additional 0.33-cent tax to expand the program. The city has acquired more than 31,000 acres of open space through the program, at a cost of $149.5 million.

Boulder County created a similar program in 1975, and voters approved a 0.25-cent tax to fund it in 1993. To date, the county has acquired about 60,000 acres of green space, at a cost of $135 million.

l Adoption in 1970 of a comprehensive plan that defined the city's growth boundaries. The county joined the plan in 1978 during a revision that gave Boulder enough space for about 15 years of development. Those boundaries largely remain in place today.

"They have stuck to it religiously," Danish said of the comprehensive plan.

l Approval by voters in 1975 of the "Danish Plan" -- sponsored by Danish when he was on the Boulder City Council -- to limit new housing starts to 2 percent a year. In 1995, the city council reduced that limit to 1 percent a year, or about 400 new homes annually. Lawrence, by comparison, issued 305 permits to build new houses in 2000.

Combined with the growth boundaries and green belt, Boulder officials say there is only enough room to continue development for another decade.

"Boulder is sort of coming to the end game," Danish said. "Even a 1 percent growth rate is bumping up against what is left."

Focus of attention

The city's efforts have drawn national attention from growth experts.

"Boulder demonstrates that once a vision is sufficiently set and agreed on so that political action is possible, a growth town can regain control of its own destiny, can assert its own residents' values," Peter Wolf wrote in his 1999 book, "Hot Towns: The Future of the Fastest Growing Communities in America."

During a dog-walking session in early April at Boulder's Chautauqua Park, though, CU researcher Lois Edgar said she sees both positives and negatives to the city's approach to growth management.

"I like the green belts, the open space," she said. "They've certainly put the curb on sprawl."

The problem, she said, is that the policies have driven up the cost of housing. "Starter" homes can go for $250,000; junior faculty members at CU often have to live outside Boulder, she said.

According to Boulder County Assessor's office, the average sale price of a single-family home rose from $156,400 in 1990 to $415,800 last year, an increase of 166 percent. During the same period, Lawrence's average sale price rose from $80,433 to $140,570, a 75 percent increase.

"People I hire as city planners don't live here anymore. Working people can't afford to live here," said Peter Pollock, the city's planning director. "I couldn't afford the house I live in. I'm lucky I got here 22 years ago."

Stan Zemler, president of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, said the situation is hurting the city's diversity.

"Very few of our teachers, firefighters and police can afford to live here," Zemler said. "It's a little bit of 'I got across the bridge, so sorry you didn't.' "

Danish isn't buying it.

"The people who make that argument pretty consistently lack social consciences until the growth issue comes up," he said. "One reason housing is so high is that people are making a lot more money and can afford more."

Day vs. night

If the population growth has slowed, commercial growth hasn't. Spurred by the high-tech boom of the 1990s, Boulder's commercial sector grew as much as 4.6 percent annually.

Somebody had to fill all those new jobs. By some estimates, the population of Boulder roughly doubles during daytime business hours with workers commuting from outside the city, coming from rapidly growing cities elsewhere in Boulder County.

"The Danish Plan is the reason we're growing," said Rosann Doran, public information officer for the city of Broomfield, southeast of Boulder. "Boulder would accept all the jobs and businesses and none of the residential (growth)."

Broomfield grew from virtual nonexistence in 1950 to nearly 40,000 residents in 2000 and is big enough now that it plans to form its own county in November. Superior, also southeast of Boulder, grew from 225 residents in 1990 to more than 9,000 in 2000, a growth rate of 3,900 percent for the decade. Overall, the county grew by 50,000 residents in the 1990s.

Critics say those commuters have put a strain on Boulder's roads. One former city councilwoman has proposed a "head tax" that would force every business in town to pay a monthly fee for each employee, to help pay for road costs and other infrastructure needs.

Those debates mean Boulder's battle against growth isn't over.

"The tough part is making the decision," Danish said. "Lots and lots of people talk about controlling growth, but when the rubber meets the road, they blink."

-- Staff writer Joel Mathis can be reached at 832-7126.

Coming Tuesday: A look at growth in Columbia, Mo.

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