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Hell, No, They Won't Grow

Boulder property owners worry that the county's slow-growth policies have become no-growth policies.

The commissioners did leave one loophole: The renovated property would constitute a "use of community significance" if the Parkses put a clause in their deed promising to keep the apartments permanently affordable. But the couple would have to agree to use the commissioners' definition of affordability, not HUD's.

"If we let them control the rent, they could say $200 a month is affordable, and then we wouldn't be able to pay the bills and they'd run us out of business," Jim Parks complains.

"They're not committed to keeping those units permanently affordable," counters commissioner Stewart. "Just because the units are small doesn't mean the Parkses won't gouge the tenants for every penny they can."

Open sesame: Commissioner Ron Stewart is also the director of the county's open-space department.
Victoria Shearer
Open sesame: Commissioner Ron Stewart is also the director of the county's open-space department.

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Previous Westword articles

"A Slippery Slope,"
March 11, 1999
For mountain property owners in Boulder, the road home may be getting steeper.
By Julie Jargon

"A Growing Problem,"
June 11, 1998
Opponents of urban sprawl threaten to take the issue straight to the voters.
By Stuart Steers

"Spaced Out,"
September 11, 1997
Colorado residents take the initiative in slowing growth.
By Eric Dexheimer

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The Parkses feel gouged by the county. They spent almost $10,000 on the special-use review process alone: printing and mailing letters to surrounding property owners to inform them of their intentions; authorizing engineering reports; having the land surveyed. Tara Parks spent days drafting the architectural plans for the units.

Another $2,500 went to the county for the time planners devoted to the case. "In order to start a site-plan review, you have to put down a non-refundable fee, then sign a contract saying you agree to pay every bill they send you," Jim Parks says. "Then you pay the staff to type rejection letters to you."

"The people who contribute to growth should pay for the processes related to it," insists Stewart. "The schoolteacher in Longmont who's lived in her house for thirty years shouldn't have to pay for someone's new mountain house in Boulder."

But like so many people at odds with the county, Jim and Tara Parks aren't trying to build a monstrous dream home. Their plans were far more modest. "We were just going to make a physical improvement, and that constituted an evil thing to them," Jim Parks says of the commissioners.

"We're not rich, we've never inherited money, we're not trust-funders," adds Tara. "We're just modest people who work hard for a living and want to do something for the community. We sold our two trucks to make the down payment, and we borrowed almost twice what we bought this for to do something responsible and bring it up to code."

Now those apartments may never meet code. And when winter arrives, El Vado tenants will just have to bundle up.


Wanting to control growth is nothing new in Boulder County, says Karl Anuta, a Boulder natural-resources attorney who's been trying a lot of land-use cases lately.

What's new is the number of residents complaining about the county's land-use policies. These critics charge that the three county commissioners are using well-intentioned land-use policies to prevent people from expanding their homes -- or even building at all. In fact, they complain, with the county's aggressive open-space purchases, the commissioners are pushing a no-growth -- not slow-growth -- policy.

As far back as the late 1950s, the City of Boulder tried to limit mountain development by adopting a "blue line" -- refusing to provide water or sewer service to homes and businesses above the elevation of 5,750 feet. Instead of contracting for city services, landowners had to install their own wells and septic systems. And in the late 1960s, in order to prevent growth on the outskirts of town, Boulder refused to provide water to any areas outside the city limits. But a developer in Gunbarrel, a plains town just north of Boulder, sued the city over that restriction and won. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that since the City of Boulder held itself out to be a public utility to the unannexed area, it couldn't deny it water service.

"The city learned that the only way to control what goes on with the land is to own it, so they started the Open Space program," says Anuta.

The City of Boulder created its Open Space program in 1967, and Boulder County followed suit eight years later.

But Boulder officials didn't limit their growth-control efforts to buying up open land. In 1976, residents of the city approved the Danish Plan, Boulder's first slow-growth initiative. Named after then-Boulder city councilman Paul Danish, the plan capped the number of residential building permits that could be issued each year to 2 percent of the number of existing homes; in 1995, the city council lowered the limit to 1 percent a year.

Meanwhile, the county was putting its own limits on development. In 1978 it adopted the Boulder County Comprehensive Plan, which set the goals and policies not only for buying open space, but also for managing the county's environment. In 1994 the commissioners adopted the thick book of regulations known as the land-use code. The year before, the county had devised the cumbersome site-plan review process.

"The county doesn't go out and 'make it difficult' for people trying to build here," says Stewart. "We're just mitigating the impacts of growth."

The county's Department of Land Use, which includes the planning division, makes no secret of how harrowing site-plan review can be, however. The review application packet includes a description of the process: "Out of nearly 1,000 site plan reviews that have been processed to date, none have denied a property owner the right to build. It is true, however, that applicants in some of these cases felt that the conditions of the approval were too prohibitive and chose not to build."

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