'They Are Coming for Our Neighborhoods'

Why Boulder is taking pre-emptive measures against density, zoning changes, and affordable housing. Bad ones.

Image Mia & Steve Mestdagh/Flickr
Mia & Steve Mestdagh/Flickr

Come November, residents of Boulder, Colorado, will decide what kind of city they want to be. Voters there are mulling a measure that would change how local government works when it comes to zoning. Under the proposed rule, Boulder’s neighborhoods could get the opportunity to vote on any zoning change within that neighborhood before it goes into effect.

The change is subtle, but the effects will be sweeping. The ballot issue is an amendment to the city’s charter, which means it would be difficult to reconsider later. Six different Boulder mayors oppose it. The stakes are high. Supporters of the measure are up front about that.

“They are coming for our neighborhoods,” writes Jeffrey Flynn of Livable Boulder,* an advocacy campaign that supports ballot issue #300. “In Denver, they are already knocking down churches and replacing them with high-density developments in neighborhoods. Boulder is next.”

In context, “they” means developers. But in reality, “they” are people: workers, families, low-income residents, and other people who might one day like to call Boulder home. If voters affirm the Neighborhoods’ Right to Vote on Land-Use Regulation Changes amendment (ballot issue #300) on November 3, then they will be effectively freezing growth in Boulder—by turning one city into 66 new exclusionary zones with final say on housing and density.

At present, when the city council approves a zoning change, it triggers a 30-day cooling-off period during which voters can take action. If 10 percent of Boulder’s voting population sign a petition against a zoning change, then the council is required to reconsider it. The ordinance can be put up for a direct referendum. Through its elected representatives and oversight process, the city decides zoning changes for itself.

But if the proposed charter amendment passes, then the locus of the action will shift from the city to the neighborhood. The amendment serves to define 66 residential neighborhoods and invest them with petition authority. So when the council passes a zoning change that affects Chautauqua, it will only require 10 percent of the voters living in Chautauqua to successfully move a petition. And when a petition is successful and if the ordinance is put up for a vote, only voters living in Chautauqua may weigh in on the measure.

This is mega-NIMBYism at work. It essentially yields the municipal government’s authority over zoning decisions to neighborhoods acting as zoning boards—66 of them, none of which have any incentive to accommodate higher density or affordable housing. As in just about any “zoning rights” discussion, the measure’s boosters support the right for homeowners to preserve high land values in single-family home districts—and force developers and affordable-housing advocates to look elsewhere.

A complementary measure, ballot issue #301—Development Shall Pay Its Own Way—would require the city to reject any new development that does not “fully pay for or otherwise provide additional facilities and services to fully offset the additional burdens imposed by the new development.” So the cost for any future development in Boulder would be raised by some necessary fraction to preserve the quality of life as it currently exists for residents who were lucky enough to move to Boulder before November 3, 2015. Facilities and services in question include “police, fire-rescue, parks and recreation, public libraries, housing, human services, senior services, parking services, [and] transportation,” along with two impossible intangibles, “open space and mountain parks.”

To be utterly clear about it: Ballot issue #301 is an effort to ensure that the city never, ever again raises taxes on residents. With this ballot vote, electors will be deciding whether to make future residents pay for any additional services the city requires as a result of growth. Even, somehow, more mountain parks and open space.

Of course, if Boulder passes ballot issues #300 and #301, growth won’t be a question. These measures would seal the city under a dome. Inside the dome, no neighborhood would ever again elect to accept zoning for greater density and more-affordable housing. If the city as a whole opposes development, why would any particular neighborhood embrace it? The low bar to opposition (10 percent of a neighborhood’s electorate!) will unleash a cascade of costly elections any time the city nudges a neighborhood on zoning.  

What happens next follows an established script. Prices for homes in Boulder will skyrocket, to the benefit of incumbent homeowners and to the massive detriment of others less fortunate—low-income renters, students at the University of Colorado, young families who’d like to make their home in Boulder, retirees on fixed incomes who can’t afford the property taxes, people forced to commute into the city for work, and so on. From outside the dome, Boulder will come to look like San Francisco, with its untenable housing crisis. (Unless employers decide to leave the dome for good.)

Jessica Yates, an attorney writing for the Daily Camera, thinks that one of the ballot issues isn’t constitutional under state law. So it’s possible that the worst won’t come to pass, even if the ballot issues do.

“Livable Boulder's neighborhood right-to-vote initiative would create two classes of Boulder citizens for any given land-use issue,” Yates writes. “Only one class would be eligible to vote on a council land-use action, leaving the vast majority of us on the sideline on any given issue, even if we live adjacent to or work in the neighborhood in question and have a direct interest in the proposed land use.”

Boulder residents, present and future, had better hope she’s right. Or better, they should think through these ballot issues. For incumbent residents, especially affluent homeowners, these measures would be a real boon. But Boulder can’t survive sealed off forever.

*Correction: This story originally attributed this quote to Stephen Haydel at Livable Boulder. It has been corrected to its proper source, Jeffrey Flynn.

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