The gathering storm


The ballots go out on October 12. That’s when the shitstorm begins.

The opponents of Ballot Measures 300 and 301 (the Livable Boulder initiatives), which would allow residents of neighborhoods to vote on zoning changes that affect their neighborhoods (Measure 300) and require new growth to pay its own way (Measure 301) respectively, have raised more than $70,000. And if there is one certainty in an uncertain world, it is that they’re not done fundraising. (Supporters of the measures have raised about $20,000.)

So starting next week a great cloud of anti-initiative mailings, fliers, postcards, door-hangers and stained glass windows will settle over Boulder like a miasma of Volkswagen diesel emissions. Chances are there will also be newspaper advertising, magazine advertising, radio advertising, television advertising, bus poster advertising, milk carton advertising, subliminal advertising and telepathic advertising.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

It’s a free country. The opponents of Measures 300 and 301 have a right to raise and spend as much money as they want to make their views known on the initiatives — as do the proponents.

But what the supporters — and the voters –— need to be mindful of is that when one side in a political campaign has an overwhelming financial advantage there is a real chance it can win, not on the strength of its arguments, but by drowning out the other side and preventing it from getting a word in edgewise. Or by misrepresenting the other side’s position and arguments and drowning out its attempts to respond.

The supporters of the Livable Boulder initiatives need to be aware that there is a good chance this could happen to them. To avoid getting blown away they need to have the resources 1) to get their side of the argument before the voters, 2) to respond immediately and forcefully to opposition attacks, and 3) to counter-attack.

If you’re a supporter of the Livable Boulder initiatives who has already given to the campaign, now is the time to double down. If you’re a supporter of the initiatives who hasn’t contributed, now is the time to get some skin in the game. Assuming you don’t want to lose, that is. Which you will if you don’t ante up.

OK, so much for money. The more interesting question is how will the opponents of the initiatives attack them and how should those attacks be countered.

The classic way to defeat citizen-initiated ballot measures is the old sow the seeds of doubt strategy by raising questions about what’s in the initiatives and about what they will do if passed.

As real estate lawyer Ed Byrne did in his op-ed piece in last Sunday’s Daily Camera (Sept. 27, 2015) when he referred to the measures as “risky and untried” and alleged that they would “delegate zoning authority down to the neighborhood level.”

He also claims that “pasting unprecedented neighborhood powers to exclude development into Boulder’s charter to exclude development will generate lawsuits, set neighborhoods against each other, and Balkanize our community.”

Chances are Byrne’s accusations will play a prominent role in the anti-initiatives narrative — so its worth scrutinizing them now. 

The truth is that regardless of whether Measure 300 passes or not, the authority to determine Boulder’s zoning remains unchanged with the City Council. What does change is the initiative gives a neighborhood the right to reject (by majority vote) a re-zoning passed by the Council if 10 percent of the neighborhood’s registered voters sign a petition calling for an election on the issue.

The technical name for this is a “referendum” and there is nothing “risky and untried” about it — except in the eyes of elected state and local officials who don’t much care for having their decisions second guessed by the voters.

Referendums on both state laws and Boulder City ordinances have been authorized by both the Colorado Constitution and the Boulder City Charter for a century — and for a century Colorado legislators and Boulder City Council members have preemptively prevented most of them from happening by adding a clause to virtually every law and ordinance they enacted stating that it was enacted as an “emergency measure” that had to go into effect immediately in order to prevent the collapse of civilization as we know it — and thus without being subject to the referendum process.

It is true that authorizing initiatives at the neighborhood level is new, but at the same time it’s worth recalling that the Livable Boulder initiatives didn’t just appear out of thin air.

They were prompted by a sweeping back-door attempt on the part of the City Council to densify Boulder’s existing residential neighborhoods by allowing additional apartments in single family homes and additional detached units on single family lots — or more plainly to enact a de-facto upzoning of the city. Just my opinion, but I think the Council’s densification squeeze play can more accurately be called “risky and untried” than the Livable Boulder initiatives can be. I also think it stinks.

The reason the Livable Boulder initiatives take the form of charter amendments instead of city ordinances is to keep the council from gutting them when people aren’t paying attention — as it did with Boulder’s growth limitation ordinances. The result of that caper was the explosion of high density development in the 28th-30th street corridor, which turned the area into a noisy, smelly, congestion-choked nightmare that makes a mockery of the council’s claims that it is improving Boulder quality of life by decreasing the need to drive by densifying the city.

As for the “Balkanization” of neighborhoods assertion, it isn’t residents voting on proposed zoning changes that “Balkanizes” neighborhoods; it’s zoning itself that does the Balkanizing. The whole point of zoning is to keep certain types of land uses and activities separate from each other, so that impacts and conflicts among them don’t degrade everyone’s quality of life. If that’s “Balkanization”, make the most of it.

Citizens unsure how to cast their ballots on Measures 300 and 301 should do two things.

First, they should start by recalling the semi-pastoral architectural renderings developers invariably flaunt when touting their projects to the city — and compare them with the god-awful, congested mess that more often than not emerges when the projects are actually built. (Google’s rendering of the 30th street façade of its 1,500 employee campus somehow managed to show 30th street without a single car on it.) In other words, compare what was promised with what we got.

Second, ask a Boulder variation of the question Ronald Reagan asked in 1980: Is Boulder’s quality of life today better than it was four years ago?

When it comes to protecting Boulder’s quality of life, the city council says “Trust Us.”

The Livable Boulder initiatives say “Trust but verify.”

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.


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