Let the citizens decide Boulder’s future  — Steve Pomerance

POSTED:   07/05/2014 10:16:21 PM MDT
UPDATED:   07/05/2014 10:16:50 PM MDT
Daily Camera, Boulder, CO

Recently a friend told me that the Boulder city government is going to use “working groups” to provide input to its long term housing plan. “Working groups” are useful to design and implement programs. But for housing, working groups would be putting the cart before the horse. The first step, and it’s a big one, is to have a vision for the future of Boulder, one that addresses housing, but as a part of whole. And it needs to be a vision that has the support of the vast majority of Boulder citizens, not just of a few elected officials and city staffers.

The “working group” concept came from a 2009 meeting of some 40 Boulderites who were not satisfied with the progress being made in the use of Boulder’s carbon tax, passed in 2006. The most important recommendation from the meeting was to form groups to work on specific aspects of the energy efficiency programs. These groups were to be open to whoever wanted to participate. The point was to include citizens who had expertise but not much time, had different perspectives, or had little interest in going through some involved city selection process. The concept proved highly successful. Some of the program ideas that emerged, like the energy advisor and one-stop shopping, have become standard in many parts of the country.

The working group approach functioned well then because there was general agreement in the community about the overall direction for the energy efficiency programs. It also worked well more recently in evaluating the modeling for the municipal electric utility. Again, there was agreement about the job that needed to be done.

The situation with housing in Boulder is entirely different. There is little agreement beyond the obvious: Housing is getting more expensive; the city policy of encouraging employment growth is exacerbating this price inflation as well as traffic congestion; and trying to play catch-up by encouraging yet more housing has its own set of costs. So the working group notion is premature.

First, we need to have a serious discussion about our future, including job growth, zoning, transportation, water supply, etc., and keep at it until the community consensus is clear.

This brings me to the 1993 Integrated Planning Process (IPP). This was the only time I know of when the council actually went out to the citizens and really interrogated them/us about what they/we wanted (I was on the council then and intimately involved with this, thus the dual pronouns). Another friend recently found the IPP Goals/Actions Items memo that laid out the conclusions from the process. This memo is illuminating, both in the breadth of the issues it addresses and in the lack of “silos” — the IPP was about integrating all city departments’ goals and work plans, not about working separately on one or another as is the current trend.

Four or five council members met with city staff in open meetings for some months to design the public input process for the IPP. Citizens received detailed information about the city’s current situation and possible future development scenarios. Then they participated in surveys using “black boxes,” a pre-laptop/pre-tablet computer device, that allowed easy recording and analysis of the responses. (Remember, this was 20-plus years ago.) City staff took these devices to public meetings, to the Crossroad Mall, and to every neighborhood and group meeting where they could get people to stand still long enough to complete the survey.

The results were overwhelming in their agreement. As I remember, there was about 80 percent support for a future of very carefully managed growth, including “target maximums” for both population and employment. Further, and I quote the report, “The concept of ‘no net negative impact’ is proposed as a condition of growth up to the target maxima … new development will be expected to off-set its impacts on a community scale to the extent possible and reasonable, and remaining impacts will be addressed by city programs. At the same time, impacts could be felt disproportionately within particular neighborhoods or subcommunities and the cumulative effects of new development will also be off-set to a reasonable extent within a neighborhood or subcommuity; … Impacts to be measured include air pollution, water pollution, noise and traffic congestion.”

What happened after all this effort and involvement? Essentially nothing. So we need to go through this process again. But this time, the community should get what it wants.

Steve Pomerance is a former Boulder city council member.