A Growing Problem

Is there any way to prevent the Front Range from becoming a nonstop city that stretches from Wyoming to New Mexico?

A state senator and a group of local activists, frustrated by legislative inaction, may try a direct appeal to the voters to fight sprawl. They're about to issue a challenge to the legislature: Pass a meaningful statewide growth plan, or they'll go to the voters with a proposal that would change the way development occurs in Colorado.

"The problem is unmanaged growth and total sprawl," says state senator Pat Pascoe, a Denver Democrat. "We're going to have growth. The question is, are we going to destroy our beautiful state in the process?"

Pascoe introduced a bill called the Colorado Responsible Growth Act in this year's legislative session, but it was defeated in committee. The bill would have established "urban growth boundaries" around most of the cities and towns in Colorado. The idea, which was first developed in Oregon, is to draw a circle around urban areas and limit all new development to the area inside the line. The result would be the preservation of open space outside the boundary.

Pascoe's bill was modeled after a growth plan in Washington state. She is working with the local chapter of the American Planning Association and the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (COPIRG) to push the proposal, which she will reintroduce next year.

The legislature has historically resisted passing any kind of growth guidelines. Opponents of the legislation argue that land-use planning is best left up to local governments, but Pascoe says city councils and county commissions have largely failed to plan for growth. City councils often ignore their comprehensive plans when powerful developers come calling, she adds, and there's no way to force them to follow their own planning guidelines. She's also skeptical that a metro growth boundary adopted last year by the Denver Regional Council of Governments will be enforced. "They have no teeth in the plan, so it's meaningless," she says.

Pascoe hopes the next legislature, which will have a huge turnover because of term limits and retirements, will be more receptive to her bill. But some observers say that the next group of lawmakers are likely to be more conservative and thus more hostile to growth limits.

"We're still looking to spend next year working with our elected officials," says Brian Buzby, land-use advocate for COPIRG. "If that doesn't work, we'll put it on the ballot in 2000."

COPIRG canvassers are already talking to people about the proposal when they do door-to-door fundraising. According to Buzby, they've found a high level of anger concerning the sprawl creeping over the Front Range and around mountain resorts.

"The public is looking for a solution," he says. "We're losing ten acres an hour to sprawl in Colorado."

Pascoe's bill would require growth plans for every municipality in Colorado with more than 2,500 residents, as well as from counties with over 25,000 residents. Every city or town would have to draw a growth boundary that would contain all new development over the next twenty years. Land outside the boundary would have to remain as agricultural land or open space.

The bill would also require that adjacent cities and towns work together to coordinate their growth plans. Pascoe says one of the reasons for sprawl around Colorado is that neighboring towns fail to cooperate on planning growth. "If your next-door neighbor wants to put in a shopping center where you want open space, there's nothing you can do," she says.

If cities or counties failed to follow the guidelines, the proposal would allow the governor to stop state funding for roads and other projects in their areas. Individuals could also sue local governments for failing to follow the law.

In Oregon, the urban-growth boundaries around towns have been widely credited with helping to preserve open space and farmland. New homes in cities such as Portland tend to be on smaller lots, and townhomes and row houses have become common. Because construction in outlying areas is limited, redevelopment has taken place in once-dilapidated areas within the city. New developments in Portland tend to be more pedestrian-oriented than typical suburbs, and construction along mass-transit lines is encouraged.

The idea seems to be catching on. A group in Arizona plans to put a measure similar to Pascoe's on the ballot this fall. The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest decided to go for a ballot measure after being rebuffed by legislators.

However, the idea of fencing in growth is still a radical one in the wide-open West. The Arizona proposal has already been attacked by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, whose president, Timothy Lawless, called it "a reckless economic time bomb." A poll of Arizona voters conducted by the chamber showed the public divided over the plan, with supporters holding a plurality but a large number of voters saying they were undecided.

In Colorado, much of the opposition to Pascoe's bill came from organizations representing local governments. Colorado Counties Inc. opposed the bill; the Colorado Municipal League didn't take a position, but it expressed concerns with the legislation.

"The status quo in Colorado is based upon years of tradition," notes Municipal League attorney David Broadwell. "We've had a decentralized system of zoning and planning in Colorado. One of the major premises of [Pascoe's bill] is that that system doesn't work anymore."

Broadwell says this is the first major effort to enact regional planning in Colorado since the 1970s. During that decade, Governor Dick Lamm engaged in frequent battles with the state legislature, trying unsuccessfully to pass a statewide growth plan. On the local level, says Broadwell, cities in Colorado usually resist any interference in their authority.

While most local officials in Oregon support the idea of growth boundaries, Broadwell says some believe that Oregon's strict land-use regulations have made housing more expensive.

"The main question is whether it drives up housing costs," he says. The median sale price of an existing home last year in Portland was $152,400, while in Denver the corresponding figure was $143,100, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Buzby says COPIRG is already building a political coalition to push the proposal. Besides talking with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, COPIRG has started huddling with groups representing farmers and ranchers, hoping to convince them that the growth plan will preserve the state's agricultural heritage.

"We've been talking to people, and they're excited about it," says Buzby. "If the legislature won't deal with this, we're ready to take it directly to the voters."

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