Category Archives: Land Use Planning

Email to DeAnne Butterfield re: the Public Policy Working Group Report (7/10/2017)

Dear DeAnne,

Thank you for sharing this public process report with me. It certainly shows a lot of quality work was done. However it is used, Boulder is sure to benefit.

The PPWG’s recommendation that Boulder “assess, plan and pilot a change of culture” makes sense – our high octane civic debates may not be unique, but stepping back long enough to consciously choose a new approach to community engagement, leading to “integrated, representative, and transparent decision-making” and collaborative problem-solving is an achievable and worthy goal.

In one of my 2009 EAB opinions, I wrote, “(d)emocracy cannot survive in an environment suffused with tirade-driven, bumper-sticker logic.” Today, we’re testing this thesis nationally, and at a local level, with uncivil discourse that scorches podiums and drives reasonable voices from the room.

Promotion of mutual respect, clarification of decision-making roles and better coordination between volunteer boards and City Council should also help quite a bit, but I’ve always thought Council should consistently note the community DNA that is unable to attend and participate effectively in our hearing processes. It would be interesting to collect demographic data on hearing attendees, gathering the data on separate sheets that do not include individual identifying information (Ever addressed board or council before? How often per year? Rent or own? Children at home? Income? Work in Boulder? Retired? Years as resident? Car, bike or walk to hearing? Etc.) It shouldn’t be hard to collect and the profile generated could be very enlightening. This gathered data could be collected at all of our council and board meetings and might go a long way towards identifying who we’re missing, both in terms of diversity and balance of viewpoints.

Active listening by city representatives (elected and appointed) and a request for interest-based, instead of positional commentary could also be encouraged. Tell us the “why,” not just the pro or con, including whether the concerns expressed are personal, representative of a named group or special interest, of from a community-wide perspective.

It is important to acknowledge that the public process challenge is ongoing and will never die. Determining the appropriate level of civic engagement for any particular issue or plan is a valuable exercise, if for no other reason than it encourages us to determine before a process is designed what we hope to achieve, from whom we hope to or need to hear, and whether we should embark on the “vision quest” at all.

The background examples were a good mix of challenging topics and more or less dysfunctional public processes. This year’s council election is likely to pick at these wounds again and again. I was personally involved in all but the North Trail Study Area process.

The Housing Linkage Fee “compromise” was developed outside the hearing room, but it was fashioned by stakeholders with direct knowledge of the market forces involved. Much higher linkage fees were desired by some, but the unintended consequences likely to flow from use of linkage fees for growth management of non-residential development (some, but not all; new, but not existing) might have been significant. I’m glad the increases were modest under these circumstances.

The Housing Boulder Working Group process was interesting to watch, as you know. I thought our group was pretty well balanced. How did yours hold up? It was a little odd that staff developed the list of “solutions” we ranked – an exercise that had everyone scratching their heads – but the rankings, themselves, gave some focus to positional debates that might otherwise have added little of value to the overall community debate. We’re all in this together, and stacking the groups with self-selected neighborhood representatives could have stifled discussions that needed to be more robust.

As legal advisor for the co-op folks, I was in the room as our proposed revisions to City Code were developed. I kept asking them to consider carefully the opinions of their neighbors and the resulting recommendations really were designed to require a commitment to active, relatively sophisticated co-op governance up front, in order to discourage “pretenders,” and promote better self-regulation within the existing code. Our idea was to reduce the City’s enforcement challenge on the back end and prevent future problems that would have tarred and feathered “good” co-ops along with bad ones. Instead, Tom Carr designed a revocable license-based approach (facilitating stricter enforcement, not encouraging creation of well-managed co-ops).

Unfortunately, Tom’s strategy re-opened issues that were, presumably, hotly debated and laid to rest when the first Boulder co-op ordinance was passed. The public perception was (and still is) that co-op advocates were listened to, when, in fact, our recommendations were largely ignored. It took more than a year of interminable revisions and painful public hearings to convert this Code re-boot into something that may encourage co-ops – we’ll have to wait to see.

Finally, the “right-sizing” of Folsom kerfuffle could have been avoided entirely had staff recognized that the shift from 4-lanes to 2 single lanes with a shared third (turn movement) lane would not work where raised medians already occupied the potential “shared” middle lane (south of Spruce and north of Arapahoe). People would barely have noticed the changes elsewhere on Folsom. I wrote about this in the Camera before the lanes were down-sized (July, 2015), but to no avail.

BTW – Andrew Shoemaker announced he will not be running for reelection to Council this year. I have decided to last time. Wish me luck? {;< ) Ed Byrne

Don’t Pass Laws Government Shouldn’t Enforce; Don’t Enforce Laws that Shouldn’t Have Been Passed (12/12/2016)

“This city is heading for a disaster of biblical proportions . . . human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together . . . mass hysteria.” – Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ghostbusters

Even if the proposed cooperative housing ordinance is passed, and – unlike the 20 years that followed passage of the last one – people from cooperative households actually prepare and submit applications that the City then approves, the prospect of more than a couple of dozen cooperatives being established in Boulder seems remote. In a community with more than 40,000 households, there just aren’t that many individuals willing to commit to a true cooperative housing lifestyle.

There are, however, many students and adults who might not mind sharing rent in greater numbers than Boulder’s occupancy rules (i.e., “up to three unrelated people”) currently allow. And it appears the clamor is growing for stricter enforcement of these rules. We should hesitate before doing so.

The City should focus its prosecutorial attention on negative impacts observable from public rights-of-way or by reasonable concerned neighbors. We should not, and if we respect our state and federal constitutions, we must not try to count heads on pillows or test the depth or quality of the personal relationships of co-tenants. Blood relations don’t guarantee good neighbors, and the lack of same doesn’t always and everywhere make bad ones.

Our overoccupancy code provisions, based as they are on the behaviorally meaningless blood relationship distinction, may very well be unconstitutional, and they are almost certainly arbitrary and capricious.

Boulder has more than enough – probably, too many – behavioral rules and regulations governing stuff that disrupts or imposes burdens on neighbors. Let’s enforce those. That is enough.

We should not pass laws that should not be enforced. Government has to know its limitations. They are real and they exist for good reason. There be demons. A failure to acknowledge such limits will embolden the neighborhood cranks and officious intermeddlers among us, who seem to have nothing better to do than pry into and judge the lives and activities of their neighbors.

Reliance on complaint-based lifestyle enforcement implicitly authorizes private snoops to go where government dares not tread, feeding a beast we should, instead, starve.

Although the exercise of prosecutorial discretion can mitigate potential over-reach and prevent invasions of privacy, why raise expectations of government involvement when and where it should not be engaged in the first place? Such inappropriate mission creep can cause collateral damage, while it arms complainants with government resources in circumstances where understanding, balance and neighborliness should prevail.

As we try, with increasing desperation, to legislate good manners, we are doomed to either fall short or leap too far. In order to “catch” everyone, we continually add specific provisions to the Code that cover increasingly remote contingencies. Eventually, compliance becomes so complex or expensive that behavior we may have hoped to encourage is prevented. The enemy of good is perfect.

Despite what you may have heard, Boulder is not heading for a disaster of biblical proportions. We need to leave some room for people with good intentions to experiment with living arrangements that do not impose undue burdens on others. Let’s focus on such burdens, not on trying to count how many people may be sleeping behind closed doors.

In Defense of Positive Change (6/17/2013)

The rhetoric and opinions we hear during this City Council election season always touch on the vision people have for Boulder and how to best support and enhance the city’s countless positive characteristics. What we hear reveals a variety of implied and explicit visions for what Boulder should become. To varying degrees, the topic of “growth” and its impacts frequently comes up, and very often it is not in a positive context. I contend that certain types of growth in Boulder are necessary, beneficial and deserving of wholehearted support.

First, a definition of terms is in order. Boulder cannot substantially grow outward; future growth will be mostly variations of internal redevelopment. When viewed this way, growth can be seen not only as new structures; growth will include changes to activities within areas of the city or changes to the city’s demographics and their needs. In fact the latter issues will happen with or without new buildings being built. Boulder’s growth can therefore be viewed more generally as guaranteed and constant change, hopefully in the long run, change for better, not worse. The devil is in the details.

Perhaps unfairly, growth and change are often broad-brushed as somehow being inappropriate and forceful actions of developers and the business community. Such loose and fearful assessments of the role businesses play in Boulder reveals a failure to recognize the incredibly integral role growth plays in Boulder’s quality of life.

The city of Boulder’s 2008 budget projects 47% of the general fund revenues will come from sales and use taxes. This equates to nearly $44 million and represents the single largest source of funding for a wide range of city departments, programs and services. This includes police and fire protection, parks, the arts, housing and human services and various other governmental responsibilities Boulder’s citizens expect to be performed. Outside of the government, the contributions by businesses to the local non-profit community, the role of tourism and the synergies between the city and the University of Colorado are examples of growth’s positive impact over time that has made Boulder such a desirable place to live.

The crucial role Boulder’s economy plays in supporting our quality of life is sometimes overlooked as the concerns over “change” cause people to forget how consistently dynamic Boulder really is. Growth has always been occurring in one way or another in Boulder, and – on balance – we are better for it.

Consider your daily activities compared to 5, 10 or 25 years ago. Are you still doing the exact same things? Have you since learned new skills, developed new hobbies, made new friends? A community also can choose to constantly develop its strengths, confront challenges and tap into the evolving passions of its residents. This is possible when growth is seen as an intentional and positive force.

On the other hand, to consider the city as “complete” or somehow mature enough that very little change is acceptable is unrealistic and unhealthy. For whatever image one has of the time when Boulder was “perfect”, there were decades of land use decisions, economic trends and demographic changes that evolved together to create Boulder at that point in time. Such a snapshot is not the goal, bur rather a subjective benchmark.

How many people who say Boulder is growing “too much” nevertheless enjoy shopping at a store that didn’t exist in the city 5 years ago? Or walking a trail built since the extension of the open space sales tax in 1997? Or have friends they met in the last couple of years who came here for a great job? Upon reflection, if you’ve been in Boulder more than just a year or two, you are likely to have willingly spent time and money enjoying the benefits of “growth”.

Boulder could not have become the compelling magnet it is to entrepreneurial, progressive and generally interesting people if there was a pervasive resistance to growth. Instead, Boulder has been amazingly visionary in managing that growth and creating a community that is renowned for its quality of life. It is the “steering” of growth in positive directions to better meet community needs that will keep Boulder the remarkable place we love, not the “stopping” of it.

The missions and efforts of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, the Boulder Economic Council and other business advocacy organizations are not in conflict with this evolution. These organizations are championing the best policies for sustainable economic growth, without which Boulder’s highly regarded –and demanded – government programs would struggle for funding.

To quote a city council candidate with a refreshing grasp of common sense: “Boulder doesn’t have a trust fund, it has a tax base.” Whatever your favorite aspects are of Boulder, our economic vitality almost certainly helps fund them either directly or through providing the vibrant atmosphere for such amenities to thrive. The acknowledgement that the city’s economic vitality is a necessary component to our high quality of life is not some sort of concession; it is, instead, an honest recognition of how our city budget functions, and indeed how our lives are enriched by the collective support thus provided by our pooled community resources.

This isn’t a call for sweeping or massive redevelopment. Boulder’s awareness of long-term impacts, and the very public processes we employ, ensure that change does not occur too quickly. But change will and should occur. Recognizing change as the fuel for our greatest attributes is the healthiest, most positive and empowering way for the city’s leadership to guide Boulder’s journey as one of the greatest cities in the world. Don’t put a fork in Boulder, we’re not done yet . . .

What Ed Byrne Will Add to Boulder’s City Council (10/1/2013)

Ed Byrne understands planning principles that have stood the test of time: walkable neighborhoods with wonderful village centers that support local businesses, decrease traffic congestion and provide flexible housing options for the elderly, young families and in-commuters.

Focus on Essential City Services.

Boulder’s key city services such as police, fire, transportation, water, libraries, senior centers and parks and rec must be adequately funded to protect our quality of life and to ensure we are prepared for events like floods and fires. I support renewing and reallocating a portion of Open Space sales tax revenues (Ballot Questions 2B, 2C & 2D) as a critical step towards safeguarding our city’s infrastructure and supporting our safety net programs.

Economic Understanding of Environmental Goals.

I will help businesses that support our local economy stay in Boulder by addressing workforce housing and transportation challenges. I will lead the city to improve our commercial codes to attract and retain progressive, innovative businesses that share Boulder’s social and environmental values.

Effective Governing Strategies.

Local governments shouldn’t try to solve every problem with an ordinance. We need to focus our resources where they will do the most good and be more effective. I believe that we should use all the tools in our municipal tool kit including incentives, education and partnerships – because not every problem is a nail.

Vision for the Future.

Thanks to the Blue Line and Open Space acquisitions, and while we pursue a cleaner energy supply, we can now focus on improving our town – the “inside” of our incredible natural setting – with innovative, sustainable and walkable neighborhood design.

Moratorium on The Hill (8/23/2014)

Today, the Hill is struggling – a shadow of what it once was, but can no longer be: a place entirely dependent on students and their spending; where three months of summer was a welcome respite. The land is simply too valuable to sit relatively idle for that long. We need responsible adults to hang out there year-round.

The Hill ought to be Boulder’s hot spot: a place where young entrepreneurs, talented students and neighbors of all ages cross paths regularly in an environment designed to promote and nurture creative collisions. If you prefer to go to sleep early or the sound of parties sets your teeth on edge, you might not want to live there, but students who could care less what the neighbors think should live elsewhere, too.

Many plans have been developed for the Hill. The best of them see the inherent tension associated with conflicting student, neighborhood and business interests as, instead, the Hill’s seeds for greatness. Well-served by transit, but still somewhat dependent on the automobile, underground parking, first floor retail, second floor office and upper floor workforce and student housing will all be needed to create the critical mass essential to make this potential university village/neighborhood center thrive.

The streetscape and the bricks and mortar should reflect every Hill constituency (including neighbors, empty-nesters and families), students, faculty, and university employees), plus offices, retail, and restaurants prepared to feed off each other. The sooner, the better.

Should City Purchase BCH Broadway Site? (5/16/2015)

BCH recently decided to put all their eggs in one basket out east, closer to the center of where their customer base now lives. Retrofitting the Broadway structures again – in the wrong place – didn’t make economic or geographic sense. Smart move.

Can the City and County move quickly enough to acquire the 8-acre downtown campus to meet other community needs as well? The obvious use for many of the hospital’s existing well-wired and oxygenated rooms is senior housing, both long term care and assisted living. However, the large site a mere six blocks from Pearl Street can do much more, and it should. From customer service, overlapping areas of expertise and economies of scale perspectives, social and mental health services of many kinds might work well together here.

BCH should be paid fair market value for the site. A quick close is more valuable than any premium or discount that might be negotiated, and the money paid will be used to underwrite the nonprofit services BCH continues to provide to our community elsewhere. Don’t haggle. We all win.

Then, meet with the neighbors and envision a mix of compatible uses that meet some of their needs, while delivering optimal value to the community as a whole. City and County employees with similar responsibilities may also be able to co-habit here, while the County Courthouse and Municipal Building continue to house executive personnel and public hearings. Git ‘er done – times a-wasting!

If Resiliency Matters, Let’s Be Thorough (4/29/2016)

As a former member of the Boulder Daily Camera’s Editorial Advisory Board, I have written on the subject of resiliency many times, often working the concept into editorials about seemingly unrelated subjects because true resiliency must be woven into everything we do, privately and publicly, over the short and long term. Boulder probably made the Rockefeller Foundation’s short list because of several natural disasters in recent years. There are even better reasons for Boulder to be involved in a resiliency study, but let’s start with them.

Boulder regulates land use based on a hypothetical 100-year flood event. It could happen within our lifetimes or within the expected life of the structures we build. The 100-year flood won’t remain within the river channels formed in Boulder long before settlers arrived. However, it’s not a mile wide and several feet deep, like the floods in Iowa or New Orleans, either. Boulder’s downtown is going to get wet, but it won’t stay wet for long.

There are some obvious things we should do to prepare for this “toilet flush”-type of flood. Identify the properties at risk. Flood proof our infrastructure (install remotely triggered shut-off gas and electric valves outside of high hazard and conveyance flood zones). Plan how to direct people to higher ground. Segregate hazardous wastes. As opportunities arise, relocate facilities for the elderly and the disabled out of harm’s way. Require insurance. To prevent catastrophic fires, turn off the gas and power within mapped flood zones after the sirens go off and before the flood hits.

Wild fires have always been a challenge in the hills west of Boulder, but fires in the wildland/urban interface zone are becoming a more frequent occurrence. Building and fire codes are meant to protect us, but they are often no match for nature’s fury. One reason the fires have been so catastrophic is that building permit-based regulations do nothing to change existing structures. If we hope to do more than improve the survivability of the 1/10th of one percent of our buildings for which a permit is pulled in any given year, educational outreach and meaningful economic incentives need to be creatively employed.

To achieve true resiliency, though, Boulder must more effectively address the following challenges: workforce housing, year round local agricultural production, and creation of “primary self-sufficiency” in our neighborhoods (the ability to work, shop and play closer to where you sleep). It’s time to dramatically extend both our planning time horizon and its geographic scope. Boulder simply can’t meet these regional challenges quickly or alone.

Much of the residential development added to Boulder since the 1950s is not walkable. We should examine the pattern and location of Boulder’s rental housing stock to determine whether joint ventures with private landowners (willing to cooperate in assembling smaller parcels into larger ones) might enable new village centers to be built in the right places for the right reasons: to strengthen our transit system and improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods.

For the good of the planet and to strengthen our economy, we have to kick our fossil fuel dependency. Let’s plug every hole, insulate every wall and roof, caulk every window and door, and retire every gas guzzler. We need to reduce leaks along with our profligate use of carbon fuels before opening up the supply spigots any further. Expensive, hard-to-find, environmentally risky oil and coal production should wait until our entire energy system has been fine-tuned, so we will waste none of it going forward. This will also enable us to squeeze more value out of every electron we generate with renewable sources, while evolving our energy generation and distribution system into one that allows renewables and fossil fuels to “play well together.”

Finally, in an energy- and resource-constrained world, conservation, localization, and sustainable land use patterns will be critical to our survival, not just our quality of life. Boulder’s businesses should examine their supply chains to determine where raw material and integrated component vulnerabilities lie. “Just-in-time” inventories work great until the flow stops. The essence of effective long range resiliency planning is anticipation of probabilities and preservation of options.

NoBo Prairie Dog Relocation: Mountain or Mole Hill? (07/23/2016)

I would much have preferred to see artists instead of prairie dogs living on the North Boulder Armory site, but it now appears inevitable we will have neither. More’s the pity. It is surprising how often unintended consequences cause Boulder’s well-intentioned policies to run aground. Land owners have been willing to launder and relocate prairie dogs in the past, but we seem to have run out of “receiving sites.” State law prohibits us from transporting such critters, washed or unwashed, across county lines, absent permission from both counties.

Whatever. Let’s not make a mountain out of these mole hills (pardon the pun; blame our editor). The North Boulder Armory site is not critical wildlife habitat. When it was active, there were few interlopers, rodents or otherwise, but the site has been inactive for so long that the small mammals moved in, uninvited. A “plan” for their removal or relocation is required. The options are few. Waiting for nature to take its course, via plague or predator, is not one of them. Humane capture and donation to a raptor rescue or other wildlife recovery program seems the most likely scenario.

But what is to become of North Boulder’s artists? They’re hard to capture, let alone relocate. The original Armory plan was well-received by Planning Board and many neighbors, rare enough these days, but it foundered when city planners determined the project would have provided too few community benefits. Utter nonsense.

YIMBY or Not To Be (8/6/2016)

Having attended the first YIMBY conference in Boulder, I’m here to tell you that we were NOT volunteering “everyone’s yard” for development. We were, instead, intent on embracing positive change somewhere, in the right place, for the right reasons, to begin reconfiguring the dysfunctional land use patterns created post-WWII almost everywhere in the U.S. Our auto-dependent experiment has run its course. It is an environmental and societal failure.

If demand persists, personal wealth as a residency requirement is unwise, and sprawl is no longer an option, then building near someone who already lives here is inevitable.

I must concede that public land use hearings are generally not good theater, lacking in the sort of entertainment value attractive to neutral listeners interested in learning more, or even the supporters of projects with potential to make the quality of our lives better, not worse. An organized and vocal few opposed to change will nevertheless be willing to attend. Fear and loathing are strong motivators.

Elected council members and appointed board members are left in the unenviable position of having to account for missing segments of our community’s DNA (families with children, young professionals, non-resident employees, etc.). Accused of “not listening” by the disappointed people in the room, representing stakeholders deserving to be “heard,” but not there, is no defense.

The YIMBY movement is an attempt to organize and energize urban optimists to engage in the public process. I hope it has legs.

Land Assembly Improves Neighborhoods, May Serve In-Commuters

January 25, 2014

When asked how to find out what in-commuters would buy or rent in order to live in Boulder and avoid their daily  commute, I suggested that we should ASK them. Radical notion, but I’m glad the City has finally decided to do it. Continue reading Land Assembly Improves Neighborhoods, May Serve In-Commuters