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No Density for Boulder

Nov 27


A Boulder citizens’ group managed to gather more than 9,000 signatures in just 18 days to stop the rezoning of some land to allow high-density mixed-use development. Under the law, the Boulder city council must either reverse the rezoning or allow the entire city to vote on it.

Boulder residents march together to present their petition to city hall.

The land at issue is a former elementary school, which was closed due to the declining number of school children in Boulder — no doubt because most families with children can’t afford to live there. According to this news story (written before all the signatures were gathered), the rezoning moved the boundary between an existing high-density zone and a low-density zone by 48 feet, so that more of the former school site is zoned for high densities. The city also reduced parking requirements, leading residents to fear that people will park in their neighborhood.

Now, I have to wonder: is this a good thing or a bad thing? I would certainly support the neighborhood residents if the city were rezoning their property for higher densities. But moving a boundary by 48 feet so that someone else’s property can have a little more density may be different.

It is likely that none of this would be an issue at all were it not for Boulder’s unusual land-use planning system. First, the city and county of Boulder have purchased a greenbelt around the city that covers at least eight times the land area of the city itself. This greenbelt effectively forms an urban-growth boundary. Second, for about three decades, Boulder has slowed growth by limiting the number of home building permits issued each year to 2 percent of the existing number of residences.

The result of these policies is that Boulder has some of the most, if not the most, expensive housing of any U.S. urban area that is not in a coastal state. By now, most of the buildable land in the city must already be developed, so developers naturally will want to put higher densities on the remaining land (such as a former school site).

You can have affordable housing or you can curb sprawl. If you curb sprawl, you can partly mitigate the unaffordable housing by allowing higher densities. But, unless you have so destroyed your economy in some other way that no one wants to live there, you can’t have low densities, greenbelts, and affordable housing all at the same time.

The real solution for these neighbors is to get rid of the greenbelt. This would take away the demand for high-density housing. Some of them understand this, but the average Boulder resident still strongly supports the greenbelt.

So they engage in ballot-box zoning, which will only make Boulder housing even more expensive. Many homeowners may not care since it merely increases the value of their houses. The irony, of course, is that Boulder, which is proud of being a “progressive” city, has adopted such regressive policies that no one with low- to moderate-incomes can afford to buy a home there.


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Reprinted from The Antiplanner