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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 county owns 58,000 acres of open space, the majority of which were purchased since the sales tax and bond issue passed in 1993. If voters agree to extend the tax this November and finance another $35 million bond, the county will be able to buy 8,000 to 12,000 more acres. But that still won't be enough to acquire all the land the county wants: Between 75,000 and 100,000 acres of undeveloped land remain in private hands.

"Ever since the county adopted its comprehensive plan in 1978 and created a different vision for the county," Stewart says, "people have complained because they can't develop as much here as they can in other counties. The government gets griped at because we make sure people dot their i's and cross their t's, but when houses slide down the hill in Jefferson County, people gripe because the government didn't take care in planning.

"One person's perception of the impact a house will have on the environment differs from another's. It's the county government's role to determine what that impact is and to mitigate against it," Stewart continues. "All anyone has to do is drive through Colorado and look at the examples of negative impacts to see that it's an important job. But telling an individual what they can and can't do with their property isn't easy for us to do. We don't get our jollies off that."

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.

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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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Ruth Wright has been involved in county growth issues since the 1960s -- she was chair of the environmental group PLAN Boulder County from 1964 to 1970, represented parts of Boulder County in the state legislature from 1980 to 1994 and was one of the founding members of the county open-space advisory committee. An ardent supporter of open space, she says it's a "fair way of controlling growth."

The county's land-use policies also are fair, she says. "They're probably restrictive, but they're necessary," she adds. "This may sound a little socialistic, but the role of government is not only to protect one property owner from another, but to protect property owners from themselves."


Mark Heath maneuvers his Nissan Pathfinder along stretches of washboard road in Sunshine Canyon, passing one beautiful home after another that he designed. But the Lafayette architect doubts he'll ever get to build a mountain house of his own.

Heath has designed homes in Jefferson, Weld, Gilpin and Larimer counties, and although each of these counties has land-use rules, none poses the barriers that Boulder does. In those counties, Heath says, "you submit an application for a building permit, and that's it."

But to build his home in Boulder County, Heath would have to get a subdivision exemption and go through special-use review, a limited-impact special review, a wildlife review and an enhanced site-plan review, since Big Horn Mountain, where his land rests, is a natural landmark. That process "would take years and tens of thousands of dollars," he says.

Before he even gets to that process, though, Heath must clear another hurdle. Since he bought his five-acre property on Big Horn Mountain four years ago, he's been fighting for the right to simply access the land.

The Pathfinder reaches a granite marker indicating where an old Masonic lodge once stood and takes a 180-degree turn, heading up the rocky road leading to the source of Heath's anguish: Doug Parker's house.

Parker claims this road rests on his property and is not public. The road is the only way Heath can get to his land, which is surrounded on all sides by private property. In order to begin the building process, landowners must get an okay from their neighbors. And Parker says he doesn't think Heath's -- or any of his neighbors' -- land should be developed.

"That does sound hypocritical," admits Parker, who has lived in a wooden house about a hundred yards off the road for more than twenty years. "But I really believe the county should ultimately buy my house and tear it down so the whole top of the mountain can be preserved as open space. The other side wants to put up million-dollar homes, and I just don't think that's the best use of the land."

When Heath bought the land, he found no evidence that the road was private. So in October 1997 he sued Parker, claiming that the road, known as the Old Wagon Road, has been public since it was first used in the 1800s by miners traveling from Boulder to Gold Hill.

Several other neighboring landowners initially agreed that the road was private, so Heath sued them, too. "I had no option but to sue or to keep it as a picnic ground and continue paying high property taxes on it," he says.

The other landowners -- all of whom have yet to build homes on their land -- eventually sided with Heath and agreed that the neighbors should share the costs of maintaining the public road.

But Parker wasn't left the lone defendant: Boulder County joined the suit on his behalf.

"We intervened because whatever the court rules could affect what happens in that part of the mountains," says Stewart. "If you're not named in the case, you can't tell the judge what would be the best alternative. If there's going to be development, it should be clustered together and located on a part of the property that isn't visible from the canyon."

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