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Protecting our neighborhoods - Jan Trussell

Jan Trussell: Protecting our neighborhoods

Boulder does not have a good record for protecting neighborhoods. Our city staff and elected officials have not served us well in this regard. This has led to many battles that we should have never had to fight.

Some years ago, neighbors near the former Washington School had to do the impossible — gather petitions with signatures of 10 percent of all registered Boulder voters to try to stop the project on that site, which was so inappropriate that the council had to in effect “spot zone” the land, arguably illegally, to let it proceed.

Before that, there was the furor over building high-rise apartments along South Lashley Lane, on the east side of south Broadway. This went forward with the support of the council and staff until a huge protest was staged in the NIST auditorium.

More recently, there was a battle over the potential annexation of the Hogan Pancost property near East Boulder Community Center. City staff supported this foolish project in a flood-prone area with high ground water. The neighbors’ efforts to explain the problems fell on deaf ears until the planning board unanimously turned the project down. Council could have shut this down at any time by designating the land as not annex-able under the Boulder Comprehensive Plan, but so far the land remains in limbo.

The Baseline Zero project, a massive office park and hotel, was proposed in Martin Acres on land zoned for neighborhood-benefiting retail and services. It would have buried the neighborhood in traffic, parking, height, and potential flood impact (being fully located in the neighborhood’s 100-year floodplain). That neighborhood had to fight this tooth and nail to even get it put on hold and it’s likely to be back when the city lifts its temporary height cap. City staff should have never let this project start forward and council should have stopped it.

The final straw was the city’s Comprehensive Housing Strategy, now called “Housing Boulder,” whose staff-generated goals were approved by council. These goals called for wholesale densification of essentially all neighborhoods in Boulder. There was never any scientific polling of all citizens to see if that’s what they want. There was never any consideration of what this might mean for property values, or for the quality of life and what’s really galling, there was never any real analysis as to whether the identified outcomes would achieve much of lasting value. Finally, according to some citizens who are involved in this project, the process is so flawed, it’s a waste of time.

So now citizens are fighting back. There is an initiative, “Neighbors’ Right to Vote,” that, assuming enough people sign the petitions, will be on the ballot this fall. This would empower a neighborhood that is subject to up-zoning, or changes in city land use regulations that would increase the density or intensity of development, to refer those measures to the voters in the neighborhood by gathering signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters in the neighborhood. (This is not easy, but it’s easier than what the Washington School folks went through; they had to gather signatures from 10 percent of all Boulder voters.) If the majority of a neighborhood votes “No,” then these changes in regulations would not apply to that specific neighborhood.

Contrary to a letter to the editor published April 29, this initiative does not give the neighbors power to turn down a project that is legal under the current zoning. And it certainly doesn’t give 10 percent of the voters the power to do anything but put the up-zoning or regulation change to a vote of all the neighborhood residents.

What is quite insulting is that some current and former council members are now saying that the same Boulder neighborhood people whose votes they courted last election are selfish and mean-spirited. I suggest people look at a map, so they can see that almost all Boulder neighborhoods are diverse.

And perhaps more to the point, if city council and staff made the effort to reach out and talk to the real neighborhoods rather than doing Internet surveys that automatically favor one demographic, they might learn that Boulderites are quite happy to absorb some change. They just don’t want to have it jammed down their throats by some planner who has just moved here, or by city council members that are more interested in nice-sounding generalities rather than the on-the-ground realities.

Jan Trussell lives in Boulder.


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.

Housing Workshops - What about the 7,000 New Jobs, etc.?

Housing Workshops - What about the 7,000 New Jobs, etc.?

The Boulder Planning Department recently released the following data: For 10 years (2000-2010) the number of jobs in Boulder stayed level and actually dropped by 2,000 jobs in 2009. However, in just 4 years (2010-2014) Boulder has added 7,000 new jobs. In two years there will be at least 3,000-4,000 more jobs due to Google, S*Parks, etc. - and we wonder why we have traffic, housing, and infrastructure problems?

The Planning Department also announced their housing workshops for citizens to “share what they love about their neighborhood and collaborate with small groups”. Last week I went to the East Boulder workshop and couldn’t wait to discuss my ideas about slowing down job growth in Boulder and other ideas for the housing issues.

However, that did not happen. Instead of facilitating a collaborative dialogue among neighbors the Planning Department handed out a list of 12 pre-determined options for making housing more affordable and asked me to choose my top three from those options. I didn’t like any of the options.

For instance (I kid you not) the 12 predetermined options included: 1) Repeal the 55 foot height limit in Boulder, 2) Make zoning changes in neighborhoods to allow more density in quiet residential areas, 3) Increase the occupancy limits which would result in increased noise and traffic in residential areas and give landlords more opportunity to make money. Furthermore, there was no data to indicate that any of the 12 proposals would even be effective.

The following sensible options were not even considered: 1) Limit commercial growth and new jobs to limit the need for new affordable housing, 2) Increase the minimum wage to help people pay for housing in Boulder, 3) Generate more revenue from development/impact fees and taxes on short term rentals like Airbnb (if they are approved), and 4) Use the revenues to purchase and remodel existing buildings as they are put up for sale (i.e. apartments and condos).

The second half of the housing meeting was even worse. We used clickers to vote on numerous questions related to the 12 options (but no other ideas). As the results appeared on screen pictures were taken of the results – as if this totally unscientific polling would be important for future policy making.

Even more importantly there were only about 35 “citizens” at this meeting; and, as I found out, about 10-15 of the attendees didn’t even live in the East part of the city of Boulder. Some were from other cities and there was a group of about 8 unrelated people who currently live together (in violation of Boulder’s occupancy limits) in another area of Boulder. They said they were going to all the housing meetings to make sure their votes would carry a lot of weight.

Now more than ever I am concerned about the direction our city and planning department is headed. I am joining others and signing the citizens’ initiatives for “Neighborhood’s Right to Vote” and “Development Shall Pay Its Way”. These initiatives were developed by former City Council members and former City attorneys who are concerned about Boulder’s future. You can find out more about these initiatives at LivableBoulder.org. 4,500 signatures are needed by July 1st. I hope you will sign too!

-Sally Schneider, BA Economics, MA education, JD law A Boulder resident


City and activists agree: Boulder neighborhoods need more say — Alex Burness

By Alex Burness, Staff Writer
Daily Camera, Boulder, CO
POSTED:   01/25/2015 05:28:52 PM MST

[Editor’s note:  This meeting was arranged by  member of the Livable Boulder Forum’s steering committee.}

On Tuesday night, a group of 20 Boulder residents gathered in the basement of the public library branch on Table Mesa Drive to meet for an hour, over Skype, with two city planners from Madison, Wis.

The planners had been invited to speak on Madison’s neighborhood-based planning structure, in which residents from 120 pockets of town meet with city staff to discuss, early and often, resident concerns about everything from commercial development to road construction.

“We do try to see ourselves as working side-by-side with the residents,” Madison Urban Planner Linda Horvath said. “We have expertise, but just in terms of driving the process, the people on the steering committee who represent the neighborhoods, they’re driving the content of the plan. We’re helping to facilitate the process.”

This sort of neighborhood planning is not uncommon, and has long been employed in cities such as New York, Seattle and Austin, and in smaller cities, including Golden. Tuesday’s library meet-up was little more than a first step, in which the Madison planners explained their system, then briefly took questions.

The conversation was the result, however, of lingering frustration from a vocal faction that believes Boulder residents have largely been rendered invisible in decision-making around controversial development projects and the gradual whittling-down of affordable housing, among other issues.

“Many of us have felt left out, and we’ve been saddened by what we’ve seen happen to our beloved town that will now carry some big, regrettable scars for buildings,” resident Kay McDonald said. “(We) have felt like we are a bother to the city, which thinks it knows best.”

Patrick Dillard, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s meeting, said the end goal is to see a neighborhood planning section written into the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan, which informs land use codes in Boulder city and county, and will be updated later this year.

“We believe that the only way to address these problems and have buy-in from the community is to start the planning at the neighborhood level,” Dillard said.

He described the city as “cannibalizing itself” by granting high-occupancy zoning to properties in his neighborhood, East Aurora, just east of the University of Colorado, across U.S. 36.

“I think what the city wants to do is allow absentee landlords to turn their houses into multi-unit buildings,” Dillard said. “Imagine if you own a house and you’ve lived there five, 10, 20 years, and put a lot of mortgage into it. Suddenly, your neighbor turns their house into an apartment building. Well, now the fabric of your neighborhood is irreparably changed.”

That sort of up-zoning, however, does offer additional affordable housing options in a city where they are hard to come by. It could help offset the high-end commercial developments that raise the pricetag of a city already unaffordable to many of the 60,000 who commute to work in Boulder every day.

Projects including Google’s approved future campus, to house 1,500 employees, and the proposed mixed-use, six-acre “Rêve” development that would sit next to Google, will, by Mayor Matt Appelbaum’s own admission, only attract more wealthy renters.

While the linked conversations around development and housing swirl, the city says it is taking steps to solicit much more feedback on the resident level. In fact, two hours after the library meeting adjourned, City Council gave initial approval to what amounts to a two-year halt on development taller than 38 feet, in most of the city.

Additionally, the city will soon announce a hiring for the position of neighborhood liaison, which hasn’t existed in Boulder in more than a decade.

“We always know we can do better,” said David Driskell, Boulder’s director of community planning and sustainability. “There are about 99,000 people who are not involved, for various reasons, and we want to find ways to make it easier for them to be involved.”

Councilwoman Lisa Morzel believes neighborhood planning would be a step in the direction of heightened community awareness and engagement.

“I think it’s cool that they did this Skype, and I think it’s good to have neighborhood area plans,” she said. “For me, the idea of the comprehensive plan and of a neighborhood area plan is to provide stability and predictability for the people in the neighborhoods. They deserve that.

In the 1990s, prior to joining council, Morzel was closely involved in the formation of the North Boulder Subcommunity Plan, a land use vision negotiated between residents and city officials. Twenty years after its creation, that plan has drawn positive reviews from both parties, and is seen by some as a shining example of the benefit neighborhood planning could bring to other areas of the city.

“I came to City Council as a neighborhood activist,” Morzel said, “Out motto used to be that we can’t stop development, but we can have a say in what gets developed and how it happens.”

At the City Council’s annual retreat Saturday, Councilman Sam Weaver said he sees a lot of value in having neighborhood plans, and he would be willing to put more resources — money and staff — into supporting the creation of such plans

“You want to have your neighborhood plans in place in advance of a large development proposal,” he said.

Though Dillard and his associates say they hope to bring the Madison planners to Boulder soon, where they would presumably address council, the march to put neighborhood planning in stone may not gather enough steam to make it onto the next comprehensive plan update.

At council’s retreat, Mayor Appelbaum said Madison is different from Boulder in important ways, namely that many of the neighborhood plans aim to revitalize vacant or run-down areas, whereas neighborhood plans in Boulder might aim for no change at all.

Appelbaum added the city has larger goals, especially around affordable housing and diversity, which neighborhoods should not get to veto.

Council ultimately decided Saturday to look for opportunities to do more neighborhood engagement out of the comprehensive housing strategy process. That process is expected to be completed later this year and lead to proposed code changes, some of which could be tested in pilots in neighborhoods where residents are amenable to those changes.

Staff Writer Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.

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