Growing Like a Weed

Coloradans have watched in despair the past few years as ticky-tacky subdivisions and ugly big-box retail stores have sprung up in once-bucolic landscapes. Growth now routinely tops the list of issues residents are most upset about, and the coming year will be a pivotal one for those who want to change the way Colorado grows.

Governor Bill Owens has already proposed a package of tax incentives and modest state initiatives that he says will reduce sprawl and protect open space. But his critics -- including some fellow Republicans -- say Owens's proposal doesn't go far enough, and they're rallying behind a plan that would mandate strict new development rules.

"We've got our work ahead to educate the General Assembly and the governor on the practical implications of growth planning," says state senator Bryan Sullivant, a Breckenridge Republican who will introduce legislation calling for major changes in state law to prevent sprawl.

Sullivant and a surprisingly broad coalition made up of environmentalists, home builders, city planners and businesspeople have been working for months on a plan that he calls the Responsible Growth Act. The proposed law would require every urban area in the state to establish a boundary beyond which growth would not be allowed. The concept was pioneered in Oregon and has been copied by several other states ("A Growing Problem," June 11, 1998). Sullivant's bill would also require cities and counties to abide by their own comprehensive plans and would mandate that cities allow for the construction of new housing when they let new businesses locate in the city.

This last provision may be the most controversial part of Sullivant's bill. Cities such as Boulder and Broomfield have restricted new housing while simultaneously encouraging employers to expand. Broomfield has enthusiastically embraced the Interlocken office park -- where thousands of people are employed -- while also cutting back on the number of new homes allowed in the city. The resulting traffic jams, as employees drive as far away as Erie to find housing, have become one of the most hated effects of the recent boom.

In the past, Colorado legislators have ignored pleas for new state laws to guide growth. Last year a similar plan sponsored by Sullivant failed in the legislature. He's hoping things will be different this year, but if the legislature does nothing, he says the issue will show up as a citizens' initiative next November. "My prediction is that if the legislature turns a deaf ear to this problem, an initiative will be accelerated."

The coalition backing the Responsible Growth Act is already putting together ballot language, and the American Planning Association has been heavily involved in helping Sullivant draft the bill. David White, legislative co-chair for the Colorado chapter of the APA, says planners in the state see firsthand how elected officials ignore the comprehensive plans that most Colorado cities and counties have in place. "Communities in Colorado make comprehensive plans and then don't follow them," White says. "Cities don't cooperate with the community next door because they don't have to. Now we have a bunch of renegade communities battling each other."

Sullivant says there are innumerable examples in Colorado of communities treating their comprehensive plans like so much trash, especially when somebody with money comes calling. "A developer comes in and says, 'I can drop a big-box store here with lots of revenues. It doesn't work with your comprehensive plan, but what do you think?' It's not unusual for elected officials to drop their shorts over that."

This lack of regional planning has helped to fuel sprawl. Many cities in the metro area aggressively court retail and commercial development, which generates tax revenue. However, many of those same cities then restrict housing development or only allow high-end housing.

"People who make $12 an hour can't afford to live near the Tech Center or even Park Meadows," says White. "We're saying that if your community is going to approve a business with 1,000 employees, you also have to house them. Otherwise, you push the problem of housing those people and building schools onto someone else."

The Interlocken office park, located off highway 36, has become a symbol of everything that's wrong with the way Colorado is growing. While thousands of new employees drive there every day to work at Sun Microsystems or Level 3 Communications, there is little affordable housing nearby.

"Broomfield has 10,000 new jobs and is allowing 300 new houses to be built," says White. "What Broomfield is saying is, 'Thornton and Erie, you solve the problem. We want the gravy, and the rest of it is your problem.'"

Broomfield officials say that for years, their city was a bedroom community with a tiny tax base. Now that the town has a huge commercial base, they claim others are taking potshots at them. "We never had the tax base to buy open space or build recreation centers," says Kirk Oglesby, director of community and government affairs for Broomfield. "You need a job base to do that."

Today Broomfield has 39,000 residents and 17,000 jobs. When the Flatiron Crossing shopping center opens next year, the town will have even more jobs and will reap a huge amount of tax revenue. Oglesby acknowledges that Broomfield has limited the number of new homes being built, but he says the city is within its rights to do so. "The homebuilders want to build without restriction," says Oglesby. "We don't want to bear the housing burden at the expense of our citizens."

White says this attitude not only creates sprawl, but it's elitist. "The political reality today is that people go to the city council and say, 'Don't build affordable housing. We don't want those kinds of people in our community.'"

One of the most surprising aspects of the coalition working on the anti-sprawl measure is the involvement of the homebuilders. Many people cast them as villains in the growth debate, but they say they're tired of constant battles with citizens' groups and city councils over housing projects.

"Our view is that business as usual is not acceptable," says Steve Wilson, spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Denver. "That's one thing the homebuilders and environmentalists agree on."

Wilson says homebuilders have become frustrated as cities frequently delay their projects and hold endless hearings over the size of proposed developments. "If it's an area designated for development, it shouldn't take two years to decide if it will be 100 or 150 houses," he says.

Oregon mandates that all growth be contained within urban boundaries, but the state also makes it more difficult for cities to delay or prevent development inside those boundaries. The result is denser housing patterns. Portland's downtown and central neighborhoods are more heavily populated, yards in the suburbs are smaller, and townhomes and other types of multifamily housing are more common.

For such a scheme to work in Colorado, says Wilson, homebuilders must be able to break ground promptly in those areas that are earmarked for development. "If we're going to have urban service boundaries, we damn well better be able to build within them," he says.

Sullivant says the interest of the business community in his proposal isn't as surprising as one might think. Corporate executives have seen how cities like Atlanta that once beckoned new businesses with an enviable lifestyle have been overwhelmed with traffic congestion and pollution. "There are numerous examples nationwide of growth gone bad," he says. "I just don't want Colorado to grow out of business."

So far, Governor Owens has been skeptical of Sullivant's proposal. His spokesman says that while the governor hasn't taken a position on the bill, he does not want to impose statewide mandates on cities. "The governor's plan is based on incentives, not mandates," says Dick Wadhams. "He thinks the best approach is to provide incentives to local governments. Local officials would rise up in arms if the state usurped their power."

But Sullivant and his allies say local control simply isn't working, and Colorado will have to change its ways or lose the very things that make this place special.

In a recent column, the Denver Post's Chuck Green wrote that it was too late to do anything to prevent sprawl in Colorado, since zoning had already been approved for massive new development. White says this simply isn't true.

"When I read that, I thought, what a naive, stupid thing to say. It's like saying, 'Let's throw away our state.' We have to think about our future. If we don't change what's going on, we're going to lose the quality of life we have."

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers

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