What is the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan? — Eric Karnes

Editor’s Note:  This 1600 word history of the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan is part of an unpublished history of PLAN-Boulder County written by then Board member Eric Karnes in 2009. 

The Danish Plan and the open space program were only two parts of a more comprehensive attempt to control and manage development in Boulder. These efforts built on a tradition that was slowly evolving toward better planning.

In 1956 the City of Boulder prepared a Guide for Growth, culminating three years of public involvement and staff work. The guide was developed by an ad hoc body known as the Boulder Regional Planning Board, made up of representatives from the City Planning Board, the Boulder County Planning Commission and a school advisory committee. Several future members of PLAN-Boulder County were intimately involved in the guide process.

After a series of public meetings the Guide for Growth was adopted by both the City of Boulder and Boulder County in 1958. For the first time a planning document was adopted that required development approvals, if often cursory, by local governing bodies. In 1962 with PLAN-Boulder’s support, the Boulder County Commissioners approved a study of suburban zoning outside the county’s municipalities.

As mentioned previously, building upon the Guide for Growth local governments (mainly the City of Boulder) began to consider means of planning for the longer term. In July of 1965 voters rejected a concept known as “spokes of the wheel” which meant to direct growth by use of utility extensions.

In 1967 the first move towards a more unified planning process was made through the consideration of a Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan. The first comprehensive plan, only one page initially, was adopted by City and County governments in 1970 after a long series of public meetings. The Comprehensive Plan included a number of topics that would become familiar issues in the future, including affordable housing, increasing residential densities and studying alternatives to cars.

One of the earliest threats to growth management in Boulder County occurred in 1971 when the Denver Water Board sought to extend water lines into southeastern Boulder County. This effort was designed to encourage development in the Broomfield area. PLAN-Boulder County and a number of community organizations, including People United to Reclaim the Environment (PURE) worked to stop the extension.

With the adoption of the original comprehensive plan public interest in limiting growth and not just managing it began to come to the fore. A failed effort in 1971 by Zero Population Growth to limit the city’s ultimate size to 100,000 was rejected by voters but the level of support (about 40%), and the defeat of four of five incumbent City Council members, encouraged local governmental leaders to scale back the population projections to a growth rate “substantially below that experienced in the 1960s.” PLAN-Boulder County was one of the community organizations supporting measures to slow the rate of population growth, although it did not support the ZPG initiative.

During the balance of the 1970s growth remained a frequent topic of debate. Several studies about growth were conducted, including a Boulder Area Growth Study which was completed in 1973. Action by the Colorado State Legislature also tightened some planning requirements and encouraged better cooperation between county and municipal governments.

In 1975 Boulder County commissioners created a County Comprehensive Plan Review Team. After some dissention between City and County officials the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan, originally adopted by both governments in 1970, was brought up for renewal and reconsideration in 1975. The plan was readopted by both bodies in 1978 after strong involvement by representatives of PLAN-Boulder County and included, for the first time, classifications of areas under three categories. Under the new concept, Area I was land within the City of Boulder, Area II land adjacent and suitable for future annexation and Area III land not intended for annexation for at least fifteen years. In 1990 the Comprehensive Plan update designated most of Area III as a Rural Preservation Area that would not be developed in an urban character.

Even with the adoption of the comprehensive plan there would be periodic attempts to chip away at its growth management requirements. In 1983 Boulder County Commissioners approved a policy, initially known as the Large Scale Industrial Concept, and later renamed the “performance industrial concept” to allow industrial development outside Boulder’s urban boundary. Although approved no major projects occurred, including the ill-fated attempt by NDI, Inc. to build a facility near Sixmile Reservoir.

In fact, with a change in the composition of the Boulder County Commission, attention to planning became more of a regional interest. Just two years after the “performance industrial concept” debate the County initiated a plan to bring zoning in the unincorporated areas into compliance with the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan.

About 38,000 acres of land was ultimately downzoned, with strong support from PLAN-Boulder County and an endorsement by the Boulder City Council. The downzoning was not without controversy, with opposition from real estate interests, some property owners and conservative political groups. A rally in Niwot in support of the plan was even disrupted by organized “property rights” activists. After the County Commission implemented the changes a recall effort was initiated against two of the commissioners but it was unable to generate enough signatures on the required petition to even make it to the ballot.

During the 2000 update process for the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan a statement from PLAN-Boulder County stressed several major topics for consideration:

  • Incorporation of affordable housing goals.
  • Allowing higher residential densities in appropriate areas to help justify transit.
  • Requiring affordable housing in mixed-use redevelopment of existing commercial centers.
  • Building more student housing on the University of Colorado campus, thus lessening effects in adjacent neighborhoods.
  • Considering the rezoning of some commercial and industrial areas for housing, especially affordable types.
  • Maintaining the integrity of the Area III Planning Reserve.

Due to Boulder’s relatively low population growth rate PLAN-Boulder County began to address the growth in commercial and industrial development. In 2001 PLAN-Boulder County became involved with a study of the proper balance of jobs and housing in the city. Ultimately known as the “jobs/pop” study the issue divided environmental and neighborhood activists from developers and business representatives who wanted no limits on employment growth.

The “jobs/pop” study was conducted under a task force appointed by the City Manager, on which PLAN-Boulder County was represented. Between 2001 and 2003 PLAN-Boulder offered recommendations on how to address the imbalance, which resulted in excess commuting into and out of Boulder by non-resident employees. In particular, PLAN-Boulder County suggested:

  • The desired levels of future jobs and population should be determined by the impacts on City services and amenities.
  • Priority should be given to creating housing that would be affordable for those who would be filling the new jobs in Boulder.
  • Small-scale existing retail and service industrial uses should be maintained.
  • Concurrency standards should be established, requiring new development to provide adequate public infrastructure.
  • The City should study what the current and projected water needs and carrying capacity are for the Boulder Valley.
  • Impacts should be closely monitored over a period of time.

One of the major issues was the identification of the amount of space that could be constructed in the existing commercial and industrial districts and where in the city more worker housing could be developed. Ultimately PLAN-Boulder County put its greatest emphasis on requiring that the number of expected jobs be reduced in the planning process and that development be based on concurrency, or requiring development to not exceed the carrying capacity of City services, such as utilities and streets.

PLAN-Boulder County’s input was generally ignored by City Council, which approved a policy on February 18, 2003 that PLAN-Boulder County called vague and disappointing. In particular, PLAN-Boulder County found that the policy contained no mitigation of transportation impacts nor any impact fees or concurrency requirements.

Planning for the 2005 update of the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan started in 2004, and would become even more controversial than that for the 2000 update. PLAN-Bolder County was once again involved in the discussions and made several recommendations for the update, including:

  • Require that population projects be updated.
  • Determine the actual carrying capacity of the Boulder Valley, especially water supply.
  • Reserve the Area III Planning Reserve beyond the 15 year horizon.
  • Retain the “four body review” requirement that requires approval of the Comprehensive Plan by the Boulder City Council, Boulder Planning Board, Boulder County Commission and Boulder County Planning Commission.
  • Create a design review capacity, including the addition of an architect to the staff of the City’s Planning and Development Services Department.
  • Reconsider addressing the imbalance in jobs and population.
  • Give attention to how infill development affects existing neighborhoods.
  • Design multi-modal corridors (streets, transit, sidewalks and bicycle lanes or paths).
  • Maintain the City’s historic preservation regulations

The 2005 update was finally approved without many of PLAN-Boulder County’s suggestions, reflecting the political views of a City Council majority more oriented to business and development. That majority was replaced by a new Council majority in 2007 that was more cognizant of Boulder’s environmental and planning traditions.

The Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan is still in effect and is mandated for updates every five years. Both the City of Boulder and Boulder County have also been involved in numerous other planning activities, all supported by PLAN-Boulder County. In 2007, for example, both jurisdictions began to investigate ways to require building and development standards that took environmental consequences into the equation. PLAN-Boulder County supported the Boulder County Commission’s transfer of development rights concept and the Boulder City Council’s adoption of “Green Points” building codes.

In 2008 several new issues regarding development emerged. The increasing prevalence of “pops and scrapes”, or large residential additions and “McMansions” replacing smaller houses, created debate in Boulder about the affects on neighborhood character and design. PLAN-Boulder County requested City Council to initiate a study of how such development could be controlled to better address impacts on adjacent property owners and neighborhoods in general.

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