Change needed in planning department — Alan Boles

Daily Camera, Boulder, CO
POSTED:   02/13/2015 07:07:51 PM MST

In her Jan. 17 op-ed piece in the Daily Camera entitled “Planning our future, together,” City Manager Jane Brautigam identified “respect” as a “core value” of the city of Boulder, and declared that, despite trying circumstances, city staff members “believe in and strive to facilitate an inclusive, respectful dialogue in which all voices are heard.” Later in the piece, she called for Boulder residents (and apparently city staff) “to truly listen to each other; and to engage in a respectful dialogue around complex and difficult issues.”

As we subsequently learned from the Camera, internal comments by a leading member of the city’s planning staff — which were apparently intended as potential source material for Ms. Brautigam’s op-ed piece — castigated certain people who, in the commentator’s view, oppose all new development. “They believe that if we don’t build anything new, no one else will move here. Our home prices will not go up. The eclectic mix that ‘keeps Boulder weird’ will stay in place,” the author asserted. This staff member denounced the purported vision of this group as “fantasy,” and then expressed a wish for “an end of the year item that sets the record straight on a number of development related diatribes of the past months…something that responds to the drivel, maybe takes some folks to task (not by name, of course)….”

Shockingly, these comments directly contradicted the city manager’s laudable emphasis on “respect” and her plea for “an inclusive, respectful” community dialogue. They also exposed the real beliefs and attitudes of at least one critical member of the planning department staff and may well — given the prominence of that individual — reveal the true beliefs and attitudes of a significant number of others.

PLAN-Boulder does not oppose all new development (it does not even oppose most new development), and we know of only a handful of people who do. So we don’t interpret this staff person’s remarks as disparagement of our organization.

But we have traditionally maintained a commitment to good governance, and we are concerned that by reserving their disdain for those on one extreme of the issue, the city’s planners have demonstrated a lack of impartiality on the central questions of growth and development. After all, the comments contain no similar derogation of those on the other extreme of the issue — those who want nearly all new structures built at or above the 55-foot height limit and to turn Boulder into a version of Lo-Do in Denver, or a land-locked Amsterdam.

When staff members consult with developers dozens of times over the course of a project and perhaps with neighborhood groups or others holding reservations about that project one or two times (as happens here in Boulder, and elsewhere), bonds of familiarity and even identification are bound to develop between the regulators (i.e. planners) and the industry they purportedly regulate. “Capture” of the regulators by those they are supposed to regulate is a common phenomenon in federal, state, and local government.

A change of culture is needed in the Boulder planning department. Changing a culture is always a very difficult challenge, but it can be done. It starts with determined leadership at the top. Personnel adjustments may be warranted. Much more interaction between the planning department, neighborhood groups, and ordinary citizens concerned with the direction of the city needs to be promoted. We do not know all of the other measures that may have to be implemented. But one thing is certain: delaying this reform will not make it any easier. The time to start is now.

After the City Council narrowly rejected the proposed Comprehensive Development Strategy proposal on Sept. 16, 2014, those who supported it were assured by Council that their concerns would be addressed as part of the next periodic revision of the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP), which was supposed to start within a few months of last September. Given the apparent bias of the planning department — as revealed by the staff comments connected to the city manager’s op-ed piece, it is also probably time to entrust the crucial public process for the BVCP revision to another entity.

Let us not forget that the most important land-use decisions in Boulder have usually been instigated by “grass roots” movements of the people, not by city staff members, or even the City Council. Thus, it is critically important that the full voice of the citizenry be elicited, heard, and heeded as part of the BCVP revision.

Alan Boles is secretary of PLAN-Boulder County and is writing here on its behalf.