Hell, No, They Won't Grow

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

Land Use director Graham Billingsley says the strict rules are consistent with the county's philosophy on growth. "Our comprehensive plan makes it clear that we are here to preserve the land we have, and the only way to preserve what we have is to not allow additional building parcels to be created," he says. "To me, growth means the creation of additional development opportunities, and we don't create additional development opportunities in Boulder."

In Boulder County, owners of undeveloped land pay 20 percent more in property taxes than people who own plots with homes already on them. But before they can build homes and cut taxes, the county makes them jump through so many expensive hoops -- securing approval on everything from the color of a proposed home's siding to its potential impact on other homes' views -- that many landowners simply give up.

Property owners have been complaining about the county's rigid rules for years, but they've only recently begun to organize. Earlier this year, the county commissioners were poised to severely limit development on land with a slope of 20 percent or more. The county's planning commission, which adopted the regulations before passing them on to the county commissioners, had hoped to prevent the natural hazards associated with development on steep slopes, such as rock slides, mud slides, erosion and flash flooding. But irate landowners saw it as another step in the county's mission to stave off development entirely ("A Slippery Slope," March 11, 1999).

Permission denied: When Jim and Tara Parks asked to insulate their small apartment complex, the county gave them the cold shoulder.
Victoria Shearer
Permission denied: When Jim and Tara Parks asked to insulate their small apartment complex, the county gave them the cold shoulder.


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

The landowners were so concerned that this spring they banded together to form the Land Use Coalition, a 1,000-member group that's fighting what its sees as restrictive land-use policies.

Commissioner Paul Danish calls the Land Use Coalition a "self-serving" organization that makes "outrageous" and untrue claims about the commissioners' motives. "Compared to what life was like when there weren't many people living in Boulder, our processes look pretty tough," Danish says. "Considering all the growth pressures we're facing, if we're going to protect everyone's quality of life, we're going to be more rule-bound.

"I can't think of a government that's gotten smaller and less intrusive when the population has gotten bigger," Danish adds.

In response to the coalition's complaints, the commissioners delayed their vote and formed a slope advisory committee made up of Boulder County residents who have devised ways to limit the environmental impacts of building on steep slopes. On September 2, the committee members presented their recommendations, which included reviewing property on a case-by-case basis rather than limiting development on all land; revegetating disturbed land with native plants; and requiring property deeds to disclose the hazards associated with building. Although the commissioners have not yet voted on those recommendations, they agreed not to pass their original slope-development proposal.

But Boulder's fight over property rights is just beginning. Several months ago, the commissioners handed their critics some new ammunition: They named one of their own to head the county's Department of Open Space.

After the department's longtime director Carolyn Holmberg died last year, the post was filled temporarily by the director of the county's land-use department. In late May, commissioners Danish and Mendez appointed Ron Stewart to the job, which he assumed in June at no extra salary.

Like all county department heads, the director of the Department of Open Space reports directly to the commissioners. In this case, Stewart reports to himself.

Ron Stewart is so friendly and so sincere regarding his mission that it's hard to see how anyone could doubt he's doing the right thing -- perhaps the only thing -- to prevent Boulder's foothills from looking like the Hollywood hills.

Stewart has been a county commissioner for fifteen years. Before that, the Longmont resident represented the northern and western portions of Boulder County for eight years in the state Senate. In fall 2000, Stewart will be up for re-election, but he hasn't decided whether he'll run again; if he does, he isn't sure if he'll remain director of the open-space department.

But one thing he knows for sure is that he always has and always will be the department's biggest cheerleader.

In 1978, Stewart was on the county's parks and open space advisory committee with Holmberg. He tried to convince voters to approve an open-space sales tax that year, but such a tax wouldn't pass until 1993 (although the county was already depositing property-tax revenues into an open-space fund).

"I've always been involved in the acquisition side of the open-space department -- even before Carolyn died," Stewart says. "I'm no more an open-space advocate as director of the department than I was as a commissioner. Frankly, open space has always been one of my high priorities as a commissioner."

Although his critics -- the Land Use Coalition, in particular -- complain that Stewart's dual role is a clear conflict, he insists that the two positions will only conflict if he uses his authority as commissioner to allocate more money to open space than to another department.

"While we've acquired a lot of land, there's still a lot more we need to buy," he notes. "We're under an incredible threat from growth in the county -- not only the threat of losing wildlife and farmland, but we're seeing a higher level of congestion. To me, preserving open space is a way of mitigating the impacts of growth. We will continue in an aggressive acquisition mode as long as the citizens of Boulder County are willing to put forth tax dollars."

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