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That's what she said

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Reflections of Boulder’s Youngest Elder Statesman


By

Former Boulder County Commissioner Will Toor (photo from swenergy.org)

In a wide-ranging talk before a PLAN-Boulder County forum on Friday, March 1, term-limited, newly retired Boulder County Commissioner Will Toor spun colorful anecdotes, reviewed salient aspects of recent Boulder County history, offered some policy prescriptions for the future, called for reconciliation between conservationists and recreationists, and proclaimed that the biggest challenge of the future will be the redevelopment of “auto-dominated, suburban-style” areas in Boulder and other Boulder County cities into dense, but “livable,” residential districts. Using Powerpoint, Toor concentrated his comments on five areas:

  • The state of the county’s open space program, including the county’s open space agriculture policy
  • Containment of urban sprawl
  • The county’s renewable energy and energy conservation programs and house size limitations
  • The county’s transportation policies
  • The need for new land use policies in areas of Boulder County susceptible to wild fires

County Open Space

Toor noted that the rate of acquisitions by the Boulder County Open Space Department is decreasing, but they will continue for a while. He said he expected that some county open space taxes will not need to be extended when they expire. Pointing to maps, he observed that open space purchases were starting to have an effect on “shaping” urban boundaries. He predicted that the final, major open space acquisitions would be the remainder of the Heil Ranch, most of the Cemex property near Lyons, and several unidentified parcels around Longmont and Erie. He also called for the purchase of many undeveloped mining claims in the mountains.

2004 Boulder County open space holdings (this and subsequent images courtesy Will Toor)

2012 Boulder County open space holdings

Toor declared himself to be very proud of new trails across Boulder County Open Space, and he pointed particularly to the Benjamin and Picture Rock Trails as successful examples. He said that the county needs to build a constituency of young recreationists who will support the open space program. He claimed they have the energy and enthusiasm to alter local political outcomes. He said that the passage of an open space tax issue in 2010 was one of the most exhilarating and harrowing experiences of his tenure as a commissioner, because it appeared to be headed for defeat when he went to bed on the night of election day and then gained enough votes in the tally early the next morning to succeed. He credited the Boulder Mountain Bike Alliance with lifting the issue to a narrow victory. Toor proclaimed, “We need to heal the rift between the enviros and the recreationists.”

Picture Rock trail

Agriculture

Toor remarked that Boulder County is unique in that the public exerts a critical influence in the management of most of its agricultural land, since that land is publicly owned. He winced when recalling a nine-and-a-half-hour County Commissioners’ hearing on the application of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) on open space property. Toor cautioned that, in response to public demands for the elimination of the use of pesticides and GMOs, farming on open space land should not be curtailed, because, he said, it is impractical to restore agricultural land to native prairie.

Toor asserted that the Open Space Department has worked hard to increase organic farming, but noted that its efforts tended to assist small farms of just a few acres. He estimated that all of the organic farms on open space land cover less than 200 acres, out of the total open space agricultural holdings of more than 13,000 acres. He acknowledged that the Open Space Department has yet to discover how to persuade farmers to use organic methods on parcels of 800 to 1,000 acres. He said he had recently addressed a gathering of large scale Boulder County farmers and warned them that they risked jeopardizing public support if they did not start to shift to organic techniques.

Toor also noted that Weld County seems content to lose to urban development at a rapid rate its highly prized agricultural land. He suggested that the disappearance of the “farming infrastructure” in southwest Weld County is likely to hinder farming in Boulder County.

Urban Sprawl

Toor declared that “the big sprawl issues in Boulder County are largely over.” He recounted a “huge battle” in the 1980s over the expansion of Superior. He also recalled that after 1992 many other Boulder County cities intended to sprawl, but that the City of Boulder and Boulder County managed to check their ambitions by threatening open space acquisitions. Those threats led to a series of Inter-Governmental Agreements (IGAs) to limit urban development and then the “Super IGA” in 2004 that included almost all incorporated municipalities in Boulder County. Despite this success, Toor asserted that urban growth limits set by IGAs are not “politically sustainable,” because people on “one side of the street” will not accept forever that their land has much less value than what lies on “the other side of the street.” Toor contended that ultimately land has to be annexed by a municipality or acquired as open space.

Toor reported that, to his surprise, Longmont had recently offered no resistance to renewing the Super IGA. However, he said that renewal negotiations with Lyons had been arduous, because it is anxious about the prospect of funding its government through sales tax revenues only and without development fees. Nevertheless, he recounted that Lyons ultimately agreed that most of the Cemex property would stay in rural preservation for at least 25 years.

Lyons IGA map

Toor conceded that some sprawl is likely to occur around Erie and Lafayette. He said that Erie wants to “bust out” of its IGA with Boulder County when it expires in 2014, and that the Erie Urban Renewal Authority has already acquired for future development some parcels that are designated for rural preservation by the IGA. In a partial response, Boulder County, he said, has bought an option on land within Erie’s “planning area.”

Toor predicted that the major, remaining land-use battles in Boulder County will occur within neighborhoods. He remarked that much of the eastern part of the City of Boulder “looks like Oklahoma City,” and, while the western part of the city (where he happens to live) contains old, established neighborhoods which probably should not be disturbed, the eastern areas are ripe for redevelopment. Toor expressed support for transforming “auto-dominated, suburban-style areas” into dense, but livable, residential environments.

While acknowledging that sprawl is bound to happen in Jefferson and Weld Counties, he celebrated the City of Boulder’s success in halting it in northern Jefferson County, which he labeled “one of the great victories of the last couple of decades.” He recollected Arvada’s plan to annex land on the west side of Highway 93 and create an enormous commercial and residential development called the “Jefferson Center.” Toor recalled that the single, most enjoyable episode of his career in public service occurred when, as mayor of Boulder, he walked into the office of the Jefferson County Administrator with City Open Space Director Jim Crain and announced that the City of Boulder had just purchased an option on the Jewell Mountain property, thus eviscerating the Jefferson Center plan. Toor said that the administrator exploded, summoned security guards to escort him and Crain from the premises, and then unsuccessfully sought intervention by the Colorado General Assembly to forbid the transaction.

Although criticizing the possible construction of the Jefferson Parkway, Toor lauded the deal between the City of Boulder, the County of Boulder, Jefferson County and the Jefferson County Parkway Authority that led to the recent acquisition of Section 16 along the east side of Highway 16 and its incorporation into the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge. He noted that this action will keep the Candelas commercial and residential development from spreading north toward Boulder County, even if the Jefferson Parkway is ultimately built.

Renewables, Energy Conservation and House Sizes

Toor reported that Boulder County has aggressively implemented energy conservation and renewable energy modifications to its own facilities, including the jail. He also asserted that through building code revisions, energy conservation financing assistance (until the Federal Housing Administration disapproved it), and improvements in the Energy Smart Program, the county has caused a significant reduction in the use of fossil fuels in private structures.

Due to building code amendments, Toor said that mountain houses of 6,000 square feet or greater must be “net-zero” energy consumers, which translates into a home energy rating system (HERS) score of zero. He observed with satisfaction that, since the code amendments became effective, new houses in the unincorporated county have consistently achieved at least a 10 point lower HERS rating than required by the regulations.

Toor reported that since the EnergySmart Program (which is operated in conjunction with the City of Boulder) started employing “energy concierges,” who help property owners actually implement the modifications that the energy audits recommend, the rate of implementation among homeowners has jumped to 80 percent and among commercial property owners to 40 percent. He said energy conservation investments by private Boulder County property owners have averaged about $10 million a year, but that they should be drastically increased. He said that reputable consultants have estimated that about $1 billion needs to be invested in energy conservation enhancements in buildings within Boulder County. To reach that level of level of investment within ten years would require $100 million in energy conservation work every year. To that end, he contended that Boulder County should approve an energy sustainability tax in 2014. He also advocated having municipalities incorporate rigorous energy conservation standards into their building codes.

Toor observed that before the county adopted regulations in 2009, the average size of houses in unincorporated areas had steadily increased, reaching over 4,500 square feet from 2000 to 2006. However, after the regulations became effective, the average size dropped to 3,700 square feet and stayed there through 2012.

Transportation

Toor claimed that total vehicle miles travelled (VMT) had decreased slightly in Boulder County from 2001 through 2011. He declared the current plans for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on US 36 between Boulder and Denver to be “a little bit of a miracle,” because he had started attending meetings on BRT in 1997 and doubted from time to time whether it would ever actually happen. (Reconstruction to accommodate BRT is occurring all along US 36, and it is supposed to start actually operating in the next couple of years). He also disclosed that the mayor of Nederland has asserted that free Eco-Passes for Nederland residents (Lyons residents can also get them free) have led to the “revitalization of downtown” Nederland. According to the mayor, many more people have chosen to live in central Nederland because they can now get to work in Boulder very cheaply.

Toor called for the implementation of robust BRT service on US 36 (the levels of BRT service vary widely around the globe from glorified, regional bus operations to something tantamount to light-rail on tires). He also indicated he would encourage free Eco-Passes for everyone living or working in Boulder County. He commented that increased funding for more transit facilities in Colorado would be politically impossible until a consensus emerges about how either to accelerate FasTracks or replace it with an alternate system.

Wildfires

Toor said that Boulder County felt it had to help people re-build after the Four Mile Fire—and did help them, while at the same time recognizing that they should not be living in fire-prone areas. Across the West, Toor said, a five-fold increase in development in high fire-risk zones is projected. There are 4,200 mining claims between Magnolia Road and Left Hand Canyon, he said, most of which can accommodate houses. He said that fire-prone areas need to be treated like floodplains and that counties should have the ability to prohibit development within them. In general, he advocated land-use policies and open space acquisitions to direct new development into cities and away from the mountains.


For our email subscribers: to read Will’s comments and corrections to this article, visit http://www.boulderblueline.org/2013/03/21/reflections-of-boulders-youngest-elder-statesman/

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2 Responses to “Reflections of Boulder’s Youngest Elder Statesman”

  1. WillToor says:

    Hi, Alan. Thanks for the article. I would like to clarify a couple of things. There are far more than 200 acres of organic cropland on county open space – i think about 12% of the cropland is in organic production. The point I was making was that the efforts to support new small farmers have only added a couple of hundred acres, as these tend to be only a few acres each. On urban growh boundaries being unstable over the long term – that is why there has been such a concerted effort to acquire the land along the boundaries as open space, to make the UGBs permanent. On house sizes – I believe the average size of new home permits in Boulder County had grown to 8500 square feet before we adopted the house size regulations, not 4,500 square feet.-Will

  2. WillToor says:

    One more – on transportation, I don’t think I said anything about replacing Fastracks – most of the Fastracks lines are moving forward, including the West line right rail, the I-225 light rail, the commuter rail to the airport, and the bus rapid transit on US 36. The issue was what to do about Northwest Rail, given the much higher than projected costs and likely relatively low ridership. The Northwest Mobility Study, which will examine segmenting NW Rail, extending the North Metro line to Longmont, and building more bus rapid transit lines (for instance along the Diagonal)is an opportunity to try to come to consensus on an approach that makes sense and can be supported by the community. Until we come to that consensus, it will be very challenging to pass any regional transit funding issues. Thanks again for a very nice article.

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