No Light Rail in Vancouver!

Home Grand Jury Findings Rail Supporters Europe Rail Neighborhood The Plan Cars The Bridge Publications No Tolls!
Light rail costs too much, does too little

Anti-Town Planning #3: Boulder’s Insatiable Demand for Open Space

Imagine the state you live in is 98 percent rural open space. Moreover, almost half of that open space is owned by the federal or state governments and will probably never be developed.

Although your county is one of the more urbanized counties in the state, at least 90 percent of the county is rural open space, and well over a third of that is federal or state land. In fact, even though your town’s population doubled in the last ten years, there is still more than one acre of permanently protected open space for every resident in the county.

Boulder in the moonlight.

Flickr photo by Molas.

This was the situation in Boulder, Colorado, in 1960. Since this is the Antiplanner, you know what happens next even if you aren’t familiar with Boulder: people panicked about “urban sprawl” and set about preserving all the remaining open space in the county.

It started in 1959, when the city voted not to extend any water services above a certain elevation in the nearby Rocky Mountains. This effectively shut down growth to the west of the city.

Then, in 1967, Boulder became the first city in the country to approve a tax that would specifically be used for open space acquisition. Eventually, the city (which is about 16,000 acres in size) acquired more than 43,000 acres of open space. Meanwhile, Boulder County acquired another 53,000 acres of open space. When added to nearly 27,000 acres of conservation easements owned by the city or county, they have protected an area that is 7.5 times larger than Boulder itself.

An open space report that was just published by the state of Colorado found that, between federal, state, county, city, and land trust lands and easements, more than 63 percent of the county has been preserved from development. Meanwhile, census data indicate that only about 12 or 13 percent of the county has been urbanized. Most of the other 24 percent is probably excluded from development by zoning or urban service limits.

When you have this . . .

Flickr photo by Molas.

Now, I’ve hiked some of Boulder’s open spaces, and while they are pretty, the primo recreation lands were already protected as national forests, parks, or other public lands. The real agenda behind open space preservation was not recreation but to limit growth and sprawl.

. . . why do you need this?

Flickr photo by Laertes.

That wasn’t enough of a limit on growth for Boulder residents. In 1976, the city decided to limit the number of building permits issued each year to no more than 2 percent of existing housing. In 1995, this was reduced to 1 percent. This was known as the Danish Plan, after Paul Danish, the city councilor in 1976 who first proposed the idea.

The result of the growth limits inside the city and purchase of developable land outside the city was to hugely drive up housing prices. According to Coldwell Banker, a house that would cost $217,000 in Colorado Springs and $357,000 in Denver would cost $536,000 in Boulder.

A secondary effect has been to drive out low-income people. HUD says that median family incomes in Boulder are $81,600 per year, compared with $71,300 in Denver and $73,500 in Colorado Springs.

I like to use Colorado Springs as a comparison because, like Boulder, it is nestled up against the Rocky Mountains with lots of national forests and other public lands nearby. Unlike Boulder, it did not go crazy about buying open space, so it is still an affordable community. According to the Colorado open space report, only 2,749 acres of Teller County open space (in which Colorado Springs is located) are owned by the city or county. Half of those are part of the Garden of the Gods, the heart of which was donated to the city of Colorado Springs by the family of Burlington Railroad President Charles Perkins “in fulfillment of his wish that it be kept forever free to the public.”

Garden of the Gods, donated to Colorado Springs by the Perkins family.

Flickr photo by shutterbugchik.

Unlike most of Boulder’s open spaces, which are pretty but not particularly memorable, Garden of the Gods is a truly spectacular area and was once proposed to be a national park. It is interesting that, a century ago, when wealthy people wanted to create parks, they would buy the land and donate it to the government for the public to enjoy. Now, they lobby the government to tax the people to buy the land for the wealthy to enjoy. Boulder smugly considers itself a “progressive” community, but it has adopted some of the most regressive policies in Colorado.

Of course, Paul Danish doesn’t see it that way. According to him, Boulder prices are high solely because his policies have made it “a really desirable place to live.” Any place that is more affordable — which includes 90 percent of the urban areas in the U.S. — must be, according to Danish, “a really awful place to live.” (Quoted in Boulder Daily Camera, May 21, 2006, link no longer live.)

Danish obviously does not have a degree in economics. Housing prices are the result of both demand and supply. Because the cost of construction materials and labor is about the same throughout the country, if the land is available, a high demand will not significantly drive up prices. Only land shortages or other restrictions, such as Danish’s growth limit, will cause prices to grow.

I suspect the growth limit had less to do with escalating housing prices than the open space policies. Although Danish’s plan allowed 2 percent annual growth from 1976 through 1995, actual annual growth during the 1970s was just 1.3 percent per year, and during the 1980s and 1990s it was just 1.0 percent per year. This suggests that the open space policies effectively shut down growth before Danish’s growth-management policies were put into effect.

Not everyone is fond of Danish and his plans. But most Boulder residents are delighted with the open space programs. Voters have actually approved 18 tax increases for open space in 11 years; today, the vast majority of county sales tax revenues go for open space, and Boulder shoppers pay more sales taxes for open space than for transit or just about anything else.

Why wouldn’t voters like the open space? Voters who already own their homes have seen a dramatic increase in their apparent wealth. Other voters include lots of students (most of whom are not studying economics) who love to play in the outdoors and who live in subsidized housing so aren’t aware of the effect of open space on housing prices.

While Boulder’s open space program has kept local population growth down, the city actually has more jobs than workers. So lots of people commute across miles of open spaces to get to work. Does that stop sprawl or just push it out further away?

According to the 2000 census, the vast majority of workers who live in Lafayette, Longmont, and Louisville (the other three cities in Boulder County) commute to some other city for work — probably Boulder or Denver. By comparison, the vast majority of workers in Colorado Springs both live and work in their home city. So Boulder’s anti-sprawl policies have led to longer commutes.

Boulder’s plans mean more driving, unaffordable housing, hardships for low-income people, and a sorting of the population so that only the rich and the subsidized can live in Boulder. All this just to save some open space in a place where open space is already one of the most abundant resources there is.


Trackback  •  Posted in City planning  

May 9


Reprinted from The Antiplanner