Few communities in the United States - let alone the West - have tried to control growth the way Boulder, Colo., has.
Using imagination and innovative planning,
a progressive citizenry and equally progressive elected officials
have managed to keep the Front Range city of 95,000 from becoming a
metropolis. But in doing so, they have discovered the limits of
what one city can do on its own and the unpleasant repercussions of
boldly regulating growth.
Boulder got tough on
development as far back as 1959, when the city enacted the
so-called "blue line' - an elevation line across the close upthrust
of foothills, above which no water or sewer service would be
extended. Today, the blue line is obvious from anywhere in the
city: Just glance up at the mountains and you see the abrupt end of
development and beginning of open space.
Progressively tougher measures aimed at protecting open space at
lower elevations and limiting commercial and residential
development followed. Each strategy was the result of
well-organized citizen activism. Boulder comprehensive planner Joe
Mantione points out some of the landmarks.
1967: Boulder becomes the first city in the country to enact a
special sales tax dedicated to open space. The tax, which started
at 0.4 cents and rose to 0.77 cents per dollar, eventually
purchases some 25,000 acres of open space that will never be
developed. Many of the open-space lands are outside city limits in
the unincorporated county, some even on the doorstep of startled
and annoyed neighboring towns that had wanted to annex
1970: Boulder enacts its first
comprehensive land-use plan, which in turn is also adopted by
Boulder County, allowing the two governments to work together to
manage land-use in the entire Boulder Valley. The plan creates
urban service areas into which development is
1976: Prodded by the findings of a
task force, which predicted that Boulder would become a city of
between 300,000 and 400,000 people in 20 years, the city enacts a
growth limitation ordinance. The ordinance puts a 2 percent per
year cap on population growth, enforced by the city's granting of
1978: Boulder city and county
revise the comprehensive plan, trying to stop sprawl and increase
density in the core city. The new plan downzones agricultural
lands, reducing tax pressure and potential densities outside city
1981: A software company promising 4,000
jobs wants to move to Boulder and build on a parcel of land that
the city and county had planned to acquire for open space. The
company threatens a lawsuit but is turned down anyway. "We told
them to take a hike," says Mantione. "How many communities would
turn down 4,000 high-paying, clean jobs to save a piece of land?"
1993: Boulder further modifies its plan to deal
with congestion and pollution problems. Any site larger than 3
acres must go through intensive design review and meet strict
transportation requirements aimed at getting people out of cars.
Also, 55 percent of all new houses must be low- or moderate-price,
around $150,000 by Boulder standards, according to
In many ways, Boulder's planning
efforts have succeeded. Setting aside large chunks of land as open
space and limiting development to urban corridors has protected the
magnificent Rocky Mountain backdrop and kept a natural feel in the
city; the city has been saved from the dire population level
predicted in 1972. And the economy hasn't suffered noticeably. In
fact, employment growth outpaced population growth by more than
2-to-1 between 1976 and 1993, says Mantione.
the successes have spawned their own set of problems.
The city's vaunted open-space system is now a
"recreation mecca," says Mantione. "We get more visits per year
than Yellowstone National Park." The crowds have a heavy impact on
the land, especially along hiking and bike paths. "We're loving
them to death," says Mantione.
Housing costs -
the average home now sells for some $210,000 - make Boulder
unaffordable to middle- and low-income earners.
The towns outside of Boulder have also boomed, supporting criticism
that Boulder's growth controls have only slightly diverted the
newcomers. Subdivisions sprawling outside Boulder's jurisdiction
now provide homes for a good part of Boulder's workforce and cause
daily traffic jams and increased air pollution in the valley. City
and county planners are now looking at ways to get more commuters
on buses and more retail stores into the subdivisions to keep
people near home.
Mantione says these new
problems reveal one significant Boulder lesson: No community or
county can plan in isolation. "So many of our problems are
connected to problems in other cities. We can't do it all."