There are petitions circling in Boulder right now that, if they get enough signatures, will put on the November ballot two initiatives that amend the city charter and change the way we handle future development in the city.
One ballot initiative would give individual neighborhoods the opportunity to vote on any land use changes in their area. The other initiative tacks on recuperative expenses to future development projects. The potential ramifications if either amendment passes have kindled a debate between advocacy groups, the city and developers.
Oddly, or maybe not, parties on either side of the line seem to either support both issues or oppose both. On one side is the group that initiated the ballot measures, Livable Boulder, which is made up of residents, former council members and city workers, and local policy buffs. On the other side are groups with a vested interest in development, like the Chamber of Commerce, Better Boulder and some members of City Council.
As Livable Boulder works to gather the 4,511 signatures needed to put the measures to a vote, let’s break down each initiative, outline who is for and who is against, and see what still is yet to be determined about the measures.
Livable Boulder is a citizen’s action group that organized last fall in response to a general feeling that there was a lot of development happening everywhere in Boulder without residents being consulted on any of it. The group’s eight-person steering committee includes former Boulder City Council members Cindy Carlisle, Gwen Dooley and Allyn Feinberg.
Another steering committee member, Stephen Haydel, says the group’s consensus was that the city was moving forward with zoning changes as well as affordable housing construction without input from the neighborhoods that were most affected by these projects. Though he says the city and planning board were surprised at what was “a quick pushback” from the community, the group decided a charter amendment, which cannot be altered by future city councils, was necessary to provide rights to Boulder homeowners.
Livable Boulder floated six ballot initiative ideas before settling on the two measures that are now circulating for petition. The first, “Neighborhoods’ Right to Vote on Land Use Regulation Changes,” gives neighborhoods as outlined in a map the ability to vote on any changes to the land use code within their neighborhood boundaries. If 10 percent of the neighborhood petitions the land use change, it will go to a vote — either during a special election or with a November election — that the city will fund and execute. The second measure, “Development Shall Pay Its Own Way,” will make developers pay for any costs or burdens that result from the construction or renovation of a building — including fees that offset the cost of increased traffic, any restriction of access to libraries or parks, additional flood control or water treatment expenses, and more.
These two ballot measures come as the city is in the middle of a major update to the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP); a change that happens every five years. This process includes a general survey of Boulder’s development plans, taking into account environmental, logistical and economic considerations. The BVCP, most relevant in the discussion, provides an opportunity to revise land use codes and zones, and amend them to better fit what the city (City Council, planning department, city manager) has outlined for future development and address what it sees as pressing needs. Meanwhile, City Council is working through a commercial linkage fee that would require developers to pay a fee that is then put into a city fund for affordable housing. A third reading and passage of that measure is imminent.
Because of these concurrent events, many of those against the ballot initiatives feel like the city has already put into place, or is in the process of putting into place, more reasonable ways to accomplish what the amendments seek to do.
For instance, when it comes to “Development Shall Pay Its Own Way,” Livable Boulder recognizes in their effort that the city’s comprehensive plan calls for new development projects to pay their own way. A statute in the city’s plan states: “Since the public costs of annexation and developing several areas concurrently could prove excessive, the city will limit said costs to those which can reasonably be accommodated within [existing city funding programs] and are compatible with anticipated revenues.”
But that clause is just a guideline for the city to follow. The charter amendment is designed to ensure that “city levels of service are not diminished by new development.” It would codify fees and regulations; like the regulation that any development must be proven to not increase traffic.
“We have in the initiative that the traffic will not increase in those areas,” Haydel says. “The developer and the city and planning department have to show that it will not negatively impact traffic in that area.”
If it does negatively impact traffic, Haydel says, the developer would have to offset costs “by paying for more street work or offsetting somehow in that region,” like adding more parking spots or increasing lanes.
It remains to be seen how one quantifies the cost of increased traffic. Livable Boulder is suggesting the city increases the collection of data through the transportation department. That would include, as it states in the amendment, tracking travel times in Boulder during morning and evening rush hours. If the travel time increases, a developer will pay a fee — how they’ll pay, how much they’ll pay and where those funds will go is still unclear.
“That sort of still has to be defined,” Haydel says. “It’s sort of like the linkage fee goes to affordable housing; part of this would go to affordable housing, part of it would go to public services.”
Haydel says that the linkage fee Council is planning to pass is based on 2009 numbers, which he says are already out of date and inadequate, thus reinforcing his case for the group’s initiative.
Of the two measures, “Development Shall Pay its Own Way,” is in rougher, vaguer shape. Kathy Haddock, senior assistant city attorney, recently returned a list of recommendations on Livable Boulder’s initiatives, though the group is not required to make those changes.
Haddock’s recommendations included figuring out what the terms “fully pay” and “fully offset” mean. Can, for instance, a fire station be constructed in an area where response times are lowered because of new development, thus “fully offsetting” the added burden? Another question posed was how long do impact measurements from development need to be done?
Boulder Planning Department Deputy Director Susan Richstone says the path the city is currently on will better assess and charge developers than the charter amendment. This measure, she says, will add more complications to what the city is already trying to accomplish.
“I imagine [the development amendment] will change if it goes to ballot because I had a lot of questions about how you’d actually implement it,” Richstone says. “Boulder historically has had a policy that growth should pay its own way. It sounds sort of simple but what we have done is set in place a whole series of requirements that ensures that the impacts of development are addressed. Through our land use code in terms of the review, we require a whole lot of things in terms of new development; what we call exactions. Then the next phase is because we grow, we need to make sure we have the facilities and services to do that growth.
“We have a lot of standards in place about parks development and libraries and we have a whole series of impact fees and excise taxes that actually go towards new growth paying its fair share of capital facilities so we can build the new parks needed and expand existing libraries.”
For the record, the Boulder Chamber of Commerce agrees with Richstone saying in a statement, “The comprehensive plan update process is the appropriate venue for a discussion about how growth pays its own way.”
And Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum said of the issue, “I don’t think we should shut things down or raise development fees so that it effectively shuts things down.”
But the opposition from Appelbaum and others is much harsher on the other ballot initiative: “Neighborhoods’ Right to Vote on Land Use Changes.” Appelbaum called it the “Gated Community Act,” and said, “Don’t do it in a real city that’s doing its best to manage its future and do a lot of good things.”
The amendment draws lines on neighborhoods throughout the city — for example, Holiday, Wonderland Hills, Mapleton Hill, Foothills Community, Vista Village and more than 60 others — based on zoning codes, neighborhood names, developments and so on. From there, whenever a land use change is proposed by the city, the residents of that neighborhood would be able to decide whether to vote on allowing the land use change to occur or not. If 10 percent of the community wants a formal vote, an election at the city’s expense would be held.
For instance, if the city wants to change one of its residential zone plots into a commercial, industrial or other zone, the neighborhood would get to vote. That could mean a business wants to develop next to the neighborhood and needs to meet setbacks and so needs a land use change on a segment of a neighborhood. It could also mean a developer wants to buy up several lots and build one big commercial or rental property. Any construction that is proposed within current codes and zones would not be up for a vote.
Haydel says most residential areas are pretty maxed out, and so the logical conclusion is that any future development in residential areas (except for those few lots with extra space, or for renovations and rebuilds on existing residential lots) would require a land use change.
Boulder Planning Department Executive Director David Driskell says the language in the amendment is still too raw to be able to comment on, but he did express concern about how many people would get to vote on proposed land use changes.
“I think the question is what’s the sphere of influence of the land use change?” Driskell says. “If we’re making a change at 30th and Pearl to the land use, how far do you draw out in terms of the impacted neighborhood that would then be voting on it?”
Appelbaum has similar concerns but points to the social ramifications of drawing neighborhood lines.
“How small they’re defining neighborhoods… there’s no greater good, or playing nice with the rest of the city. You can lower the gate and deal with yourselves, but that’s just totally inappropriate.”
To that point, Haydel says he lives in Goss Grove, “across the street from Section 8 housing, half a block [from] a halfway house, and down the street [from] Naropa.” Haydel says it’s ironic that City Council, many of whom live in single-family homes in Boulder would call his community selfish or gated.
Part of the appeal of this amendment, Haydel says, is that it protects communities 20 and 30 years down the road when development changes, markets change and City Council members change. But one issue many opponents have of the amendment is that it’s unclear, at Haydel’s admission, just how many land use votes there would be every year. Driskell says in his entire tenure at the planning department, he hasn’t overseen many more than three or four major land use revisions to residential areas.
So it’s unclear, at least for now, how much these special elections run through the city would cost taxpayers. And would some neighborhoods get fed up at having to pay for the issues of other neighborhoods?
“That could be,” Haydel says. “We have some communities right now, for example Newlands or Frasier Meadows, where I don’t see much changes planned for them but other communities do [have changes planned]. But in 10 years, who knows what the landscape is going to be?”
Some lingering questions remain about the motives of voters should these ballot initiatives make it to November. Wouldn’t most homeowners want the ability to vote on any land use changes in their neighborhood? Wouldn’t most Boulder citizens want stricter rules for development to offset traffic costs and park access? And would we really be stifling development in town with these amendments as opponents and developers say?
“We hope … a neighborhood never has to fight a land use change,” Haydel says. “It’s more letting City Council know that neighborhoods should be engaged in the process.”
Earning that ability, by getting the initiatives on the ballot and winning in an election, will not be easy, Haydel says. He says there are many wealthy parties interested in seeing these initiatives fail. Livable Boulder is crossing its fingers and gearing up for a battle.
“There are a lot of groups with developer-backed money that are going to fight [the measures],” Haydel says. “We don’t have any big backers. We’re fighting Boulder Chamber, Better Boulder… they are going to fight this, and they have money behind them.”
Also working against the group might be public perception. A recent article in the Daily Camera about the initiatives referred to the group as “Development foes,” in the headline, and Appelbaum framed all those who might be in support of the measures as “a pretty large cohort in Boulder that pretty much wants to stop all growth and development.”
What it comes down to, Haydel believes, is the rights of the community, which is trying to regain control of development and what happens in their own neighborhoods from an apathetic and self-serving council. The group is working on the initiative’s language after receiving the city attorney’s feedback, but Livable Boulder thinks passing these measures will put a wrench in what they say is development spiraling out of control.
“I think [the city] somehow has a vision and they want to stick to that even though there isn’t a lot of feedback,” Haydel says. “Appelbaum just doesn’t want to get community input. It’s not the entire city council; it’s just the feeling people get is that they’re doing it no matter what.”