Boulder's ingenuity has a few drawbacks
Note: this feature article is one of several in a special issue about growth and planning in the West.
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 them.
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 directed.
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 building permits.
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 limits.
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 Mantione.
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.
But 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."