February 8, 2000
If one of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result, then the current growth management debate in Colorado is “insane.” An interesting bill proposed by Sen. Bryan Sullivant, the energetic chair of the state legislature’s Interim Committee on Growth and Development, S.B. 118, the “Responsible Growth Act,” is now dead. Although preferred by an unusual, if not unprecedented homebuilder/environmental group coalition, the bill, which featured provisions requiring enforceable comprehensive plans and dispute resolution strategies for dealing with regional conflicts, was killed in committee by critics who remain persuaded that local control of land use planning is the only way to go in Colorado.
The most comprehensive growth management bill remaining in the legislature’s hopper is H.B. 1223. It was developed and is being promoted by Colorado Counties, Inc. (CCI), and the Colorado Municipal League (CML), the lobbying organizations who represent the local land use planning entities whose freedom from state interference was likely to be reduced under S.B. 118. The CCI/CML bill offers many of the same strategies as S.B. 118, but without “coercion” (some would say without “teeth”). Cooperative efforts to establish coordinated regional growth boundaries and retail sales tax revenue-sharing would be encouraged, but not required. Local governmental jurisdictional disputes could be submitted voluntarily to alternative dispute resolution. All in all, not a bad bill, but even if it passes, will that be enough to satisfy those who believe economic, political and tax incentives will continue to create sprawling development patterns in the absence of mandatory controls?
Stay tuned. By the time you read this, H.B. 1223 may be dead, too. “Encouragement” usually means financial support, so a fiscal impact assessment by the Appropriations Committee is likely to be required. The only land use-related issue the legislature seems to like less than statewide planning is having to pay for additional local or regional planning — which leaves all those incentives out there to continue weaving their inexorable, but seemingly dysfunctional patterns into Colorado’s human settlements . . . UNLESS a ballot initiative is proposed to enable the citizens of our fair state to solve this problem in the voting booth by themselves!
Heaven forbid. There are those who would argue that a ballot box approach is required to break the legislative stalemate that this year more than any other bears a striking resemblance to a firing squad deployed in a circle. One wonders if there isn’t a constituency infiltrating all of the relevant advocacy groups seeking to ensure that a statewide vote be taken (as though doing so would tell us something we don’t already know). Government by initiative is hard enough when it is confined to emotional issues with clear alternatives about which the vast majority of citizens hold strong opinions. When it is employed as it may be here to sort through complex intergovernmental and private property relationships riven with constitutional implications, bumper sticker logic is likely to prove unequal to the task. Is there no way to stop this train wreck? Perhaps, but the prospects do not look promising.
It is still possible for the homebuilder/environmental coalition to negotiate for amendments to the CCI/CML bill that would accomplish some of the Responsible Growth Act’s objectives. The homebuilders would be willing to accept urban growth boundaries if urban growth opportunity zones are identified as well. Infill and redevelopment projects have the potential for re-mixing over time many of the auto-dependent single-use enclaves we have approved since the ’50s along the Front Range. However, when proposed today, they face a gauntlet of local opposition and ever-evolving procedural hurdles that together gut their economic feasibility.
Environmental groups were more comfortable working out their differences with the homebuilders than with the cities and counties, but now everyone should get together behind a reasonable step forward, a revised CCI/CML bill. Even without a new bill, the authority necessary to control sprawl exists at the local level. More importantly, the average consumer is beginning to see the benefits of choosing a home so that they can work, shop and play closer to where they sleep. Technology may soon offer enough flexibility to significantly impact our daily commute. When all is said and done, I suspect it will be these market forces and technological innovation, not government regulation, that will most effectively deal with the challenges of growth in the West. Let’s hope so . . .