The road to the Danish Plan


It would be wrong to say that Boulder wasn’t concerned about growth until 1971. In the 1950s and 1960s Boulder was plenty concerned about growth — specifically about how to get more of it.

And over the next 20 years, Boulder got the growth it wanted — good and hard.

In 1950, Boulder’s population was 19,999. In 1960 it was 37,718. In 1970 it was 68,870. The University of Colorado also grew. Between the early ’50s and the early ’70s, CU’s enrollment grew from about 5,000 to 20,000.

Along the way there was some push-back, of course. When development started crawling up the backdrop in the 1959, a grass-roots initiative, lead by a citizens group that was to become PLAN-Boulder County (the PLAN in the name stood for People’s League for Action Now) pushed through the Blue Line charter amendment, which banned the City from supplying water to development above a certain elevation (5,750 feet) on the backdrop.

In 1965 a proposal to run a city water line south to Marshall Road was derailed by a citizen referendum after the city council approved it.

In 1967 the first open space tax was approved.

But it was in 1971 municipal election that the growth issue was directly confronted.

A chapter of international organization Zero Population Growth had been formed in Boulder, and it circulated a petition to put a charter amendment on the ballot that would have capped Boulder’s population as approximately 100,000 by capping the city’s stock of single and multi-family residences at 40,000.

The ZPG petition terrified the city’s fathers, mothers and business community, who were still pro-growth.

They quickly concluded they couldn’t beat the ZPG amendment without offering a plausible alternative. The alternative they came up with was an advisory referendum that urged the city council to adopt policies that would throttle back the city’s growth to a rate “substantially below” that experienced in the 1960s.

During the 1960s Boulder’s growth rate had averaged 5 percent a year.

Once the advisory referendum was assured a spot on the ballot, the business community unleashed an avalanche of advertising against the ZPG amendment and in favor of the alternative.

The ZPG amendment went down in flames and the advisory referendum passed handily.

Two other things happened in that election.

A charter amendment limiting the height of new buildings in town to 55 feet was passed.

And four liberal city council members were elected — Penfield Tate, Tim Fuller, Ken Wright and Karen Paget. With the vote of at least one hold-over liberal incumbent, this meant Boulder had a liberalmajority city council for the first time in its history.

The council’s new majority was more interested in social issues than environmental issues, but it also recognized that the voters expected them to do something about growth. So they did what red-blooded 1970s liberals always did when faced with political hot potatoes: They appointed a “blue ribbon” committee to study the problem.

Thus the Boulder Area Growth Study (BAGS to its friends) came to be. A quarter million dollars in grants was obtained. A director and staff were hired. Leading representatives of the environmental and business communities were appointed to the committee. And for the next two years they studied the problem.

Eventually a 10-volume final report emerged. It contained four scenarios, scores of maps and more than 100 recommendations. But what it really said, in so many words, was:

1) You really can’t stand in the way of growth, but you can manage it, and 

 2) Have the city planning staff produce a growth management plan for Boulder.

The council told the city staff to do it, and the staff got on it. The council, meanwhile, moved on to other business — like surviving the conservative backlash to a gay rights amendment it had passed the year before.

Hard as it is to believe today, in 1972 there were a lot of social conservatives in Boulder.

The council’s liberal majority survived the 1973 election. But the gay rights amendment didn’t prove as durable. An initiative repealing the ordinance was overwhelmingly passed in 1974, and another petition drive forced Tate and Fuller into a recall election. Tate survived, but Fuller didn’t.

By the time the 1975 election rolled around, environmental issues generally had been pretty well marginalized. The Camera was calling the 1975 council election “an election without issues.”

Which pissed me off. 

So I threw my hat into the ring and wrote a platform with 20 planks in it — each one addressing a specific issue and stating what I thought should be done about it.

I had a lot to say about environmental issues, but I didn’t propose a growth control plan during the campaign.

I didn’t offer a specific growth control ordinance because a case challenging a growth control ordinance that had been adopted by the City of Petaluma in California was being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was clear that case was going to determine whether a city could enact quantitative growth controls by limiting construction. I didn’t want to propose something until the constitutional question was settled.

The 1975 election ended with conservative, pro-growth candidates finishing in the top three spots, which was enough to restore a conservative majority to the city council. I finished fifth and got the two-year term.

In February 1976 the City staff presented the growth control plan it had been working on for the past two years. It consisted of a Kafkaesque tangle of regulations. It did not set a growth rate. No one on the council liked it. It was dead on arrival.

(During the four years the council had spent kicking the growth can down the road [1972-1975] Boulder’s housing inventory increased by approximately 4,000 units.)

The U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the Petaluma case, which left standing the appellate court decision in favor of Petaluma. This meant there was at least one way for a city to control growth that had passed constitutional muster — building permit limitation.

The conservative majority on the council voted to sack the city manager, Archie Twitchell, who had been hired by the liberal council. It also tried to annex the Gunbarrel subdivisions to crank up growth (and add a few thousand more conservatives to Boulder’s voter rolls).

“Might as well swing for the bleachers,” I said to myself.

I wrote off to Petaluma and got a copy of their ordinance. It was clear it could serve as a template for a Boulder growth-control ordinance. So I drafted one and showed it to a number of liberal attorneys. They were sympathetic, but refrained from making specific suggestions to improve the ordinance — or from offering their support.

There were two exceptions: Tom Lamm, brother of then-governor Dick Lamm, and a young attorney named Alan Schwartz who volunteered his services. Alan immediately got the concept. He took my draft, went over it line-by-line, and made it bullet-proof.

I started recruiting supporters and raising money. By August we had a campaign organization in place.

I knew there was zero chance of the council passing the ordinance, but I felt it was important to pay decent respect to the legislative process, so I formally submitted it for the council’s consideration.

I also had 200 initiative petitions printed and ready to go.

In August, the plan was voted down five to four. I asked the council to put it on the ballot. That was also voted down five to four.

By the end of the week, we were circulating petitions to put it on the ballot.

To be continued next week: How to pass a growth control ordinance when no one wants it except the people.


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

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