Hell, No, We Won't Grow!

A proposal that would radically change the way Colorado grows and curb urban sprawl is on a collision course with the Colorado Legislature. And if lawmakers turn the idea down--again--Colorado voters will likely have the final say.

The Colorado Responsible Growth Act would mandate "urban growth boundaries" around most of the state's cities and towns. The idea, pioneered by Oregon, is to draw circles around cities and forbid development outside those boundaries. Proponents of the concept say it would end the helter-skelter development that plagues the Front Range and fast-growing areas like Summit County. And its opponents? So far, they aren't talking--but they're out there.

"We desperately need this," says state senator Pat Pascoe of Denver, who is sponsoring the bill in the senate. "The public is very much behind this, but I'm not sure the legislators are."

Once considered radical, the idea of reigning in sprawl has become increasingly acceptable. From Tennessee to Washington, states have passed laws to stem the random development that's led to a blur of subdivisions and Wal-Marts along major highways. Most of these proposals mandate cooperation in planning between adjacent cities and counties, and they often impose some kind of growth boundary around urban areas.

Such plans have always received a cold reception in the Colorado Legislature, however. In the Seventies, former governor Dick Lamm battled lawmakers for years in a futile attempt to implement statewide land-use planning.

This year's proposal may have a better chance. The support is more bipartisan--Pascoe is a Democrat, while a companion bill in the statehouse is being carried by Representative Bryan Sullivant, a Republican--and backers of the plan have spent months talking to groups ranging from the Colorado Cattlemen's Association to local homebuilders, trying to win their support.

"If we don't plan today, we'll look like California tomorrow," says Sullivant, who serves as assistant majority leader. "Most people find it interesting that I'm a Breckenridge Republican and land use is important to me. I'm trying to lead the Republicans by example. If you're a pro-business Republican, you need to look at the factors that affect quality of life."

The pace of growth in Colorado is so relentless that the state is now losing 90,000 acres of farmland per year to development. And sprawl is no longer confined to the Front Range. The population of the Western Slope is projected to increase by 74 percent over the next twenty years, and the still largely rural area that extends from Parachute to Aspen is already zoned for 400,000 residents.

The Colorado chapter of the American Planning Association has played a key role in putting together Sullivant's proposal. According to Bill Lamont, president of the APA chapter and former Denver planning director, the measure focuses on growth boundaries, cooperation between cities and counties, and "transferable development credits" to help preserve open space.

Those development credits may be the most unusual--and controversial--part of the proposal. In talking to farm and ranching groups like the Cattlemen's Association, the APA discovered that for many rural residents, the land is their only real asset. As a result, says Lamont, any restrictions on developing their property frightens many of those people.

"The ranchers say their land is their 401k," he adds. "Their option is to sell it for development purposes."

To win support from rural Coloradans, Sullivant's bill includes an unprecedented provision that would allow farmers and ranchers to sell their development rights to urban developers. For example, a Denver developer could buy development credits from a rancher in Douglas County and use those to create a denser project in the city than might be allowed under current zoning. Meanwhile, the rancher would be compensated for giving up the right to develop his property, and the land would remain open space.

"A lot of people would like to see the ranch or farm continue to be ranched or farmed, but in today's world, it's not particularly viable," says Lamont. "What we're talking about is avoiding the checkerboard pattern of development that leaves 100 acres here and there bypassed. That's the kind of growth that costs us dearly."

The plan calls for dividing land use into three categories: "urban service areas," where most growth would be concentrated; "rural development areas," where homes on five or more acres would be permitted; and rural areas where the minimum lot size would be 35 acres.

Many of the interests and industries that would be affected by the proposal have yet to take a position. "We agree urban development should occur in or adjacent to existing cities," says David Broadwell of the Colorado Municipal League, which represents city governments. "Part of the problem in Colorado is that development can occur in a hopscotch pattern into the hinterlands."

But Broadwell says his group's members still have many questions about the transferable development credits. "That might require a city to accept greater levels of density than they want to see," he adds. "That's what we mean when we say the devil is in the details."

According to Lamont, Sullivant's proposal would require cities and counties to follow their own comprehensive plans, which today are often ignored. That means a developer will know exactly where he can put a shopping center and would be able to buy development credits for that specific site, Lamont says, not foist unwanted projects on cities.

"What happens now is that developers go through all kinds of hassle to get property rezoned," says Lamont. "The way the act works is that if a developer comes in and meets the criteria of the comprehensive plan, they can just purchase the development rights instead of going through the rezoning."

If the measure passes, people will have to pay careful attention to their local comprehensive plans, adds Lamont, because they will become legally mandated blueprints for how development takes place.

While Sullivant has his doubts that the legislature will alter its historic resistance to land-use planning, he says he's telling his colleagues that if they don't deal with the issue now, voters may take the law into their own hands. "We either approach this issue in a thoughtful manner, or this will be on the ballot next year," predicts Sullivant.

"We're hopeful the legislature will do something," says Susan Matt of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, one of the organizations pushing the house and senate bills. "If they ignore the will of the people, we'll go forward with a ballot initiative."

It's already happened in other states. The anti-sprawl movement has become a powerful force across the country, flexing its muscles even in highly conservative states like Arizona and Utah. That's because frustration with sprawl now transcends political ideology, Matt says. "The transformation of the landscape is so dramatic, it's too big to ignore."

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers

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