This fall, voters will face two ballot issues that have been placed on the ballot by a group calling itself Livable Boulder. The proponents are good people, and I count some of them as personal friends. But I think they are dead wrong on these issues, which will actually go a long way towards making Boulder far less livable.
This may seem strange coming from me. I have spent my adult life in Boulder as an advocate for environmental protection, open space preservation, climate action, and carefully managed growth. Aren’t these anti-growth ballot issues just another step to preserve the environment and the character of our community? The short answer is no.
I see four big ways that these initiatives will hurt our community. First is their impact on our environment. By forcing housing out of Boulder, they will increase the number of people commuting into town and make it much harder to serve travel needs by public transit or by walking and biking. By forcing jobs out of Boulder, they will be displaced to far flung suburban office parks built on former open space and direct commuter traffic away from transit alternatives. These initiatives will make it much more difficult to do “gentle infill”—allowing residents to have accessory dwelling units, share their homes with friends, and other approaches that allow more of us to share the same spaces, reducing our energy use and carbon footprint.
Second is the impact on housing affordability. Housing prices in Boulder are already out of whack. But we have many opportunities to add housing that is affordable to working people, in places like Boulder Junction near 30th and Pearl, or the old Boulder Community Hospital site. These ballot initiatives will make this much harder, likely leading to far less housing, either permanently affordable or just the kind of smaller units that many working people can afford. For the 50% of Boulderites who do not own a house, these will be a disaster. Personally, I want to live in a community where there is housing for teachers and nurses and nonprofit workers and other folks who provide essential services. I’d also like to live in a town where there is some hope that my children can afford to reside, and where there are places for our elderly.
You don’t have to take my word on the impact on housing; take a look at what Boulder Housing partners, the folks who actually build affordable housing have to say: http://www.dailycamera.com/guest-opinions/ci_28913642/boulder-housing-partners-300-301-could-impede-affordable.
Third is the impact on our community decision making. The so-called neighborhood vote proposal is perhaps the worst local public policy proposal I have seen in twenty years. It would carve the city into dozens of little fiefdoms, each of which would have veto power over many types of land use changes in their area. Consider the Boulder Community Hospital site, bought by the city to meet broad community needs. This could well require a rezoning of the site—something that is subject to neighborhood control by 300. I live two blocks from the hospital, and under this ballot issue, my neighborhood might get veto power over the future of the site. Is there anyone who actually believes that is the right way to make decisions that affect the entire community?
Fourth is the impact to our economy and the city budget. When I moved to Boulder 35 years ago, we were largely a bedroom community. There just weren’t many jobs in Boulder. The stories about the PhDs stuck working in coffee shops were very real. In the intervening years we have had significant job growth—which has made Boulder a better place. It’s good to have high paying jobs, and opportunities for advancement. Our thriving economy brings in the tax revenue that pays for our public services—whether it is buying open space, providing parks and recreation centers, or improving bikeways and local transit.
This is where the so-called “Growth Shall Pay Its own Way” measure falls down. It is true that urban sprawl does not pay for itself, because you have to build so much new infrastructure to serve it. But in Boulder, all of our growth is redevelopment, of areas like old car dealerships and 1960s strip malls. Our comp plan already requires growth to pay its own way. We already know what parks and transportation and other improvements we want as a community—these aren’t driven by new growth. Instead, sales and property tax from new growth, plus the affordable housing and transportation fees they pay, helps us cover the cost for our community improvements.
And this is a very vague, poorly worded ballot issue. It requires the city to charge the full costs of development, but gives no guidance on how to do this calculation. Given that Boulder has had a policy for decades requiring that development pay its own way, and has established and updated over time a whole variety of fees and taxes to do this, and has some of the highest development fees of any city, it appears that Boulder is already implementing this. The proponents clearly believe that this is not the case (Steve Pomerance, for example, argues that housing fees should be about 7 times higher than they are). A far more straightforward approach would be for the proponents to put an issue on the ballot actually asking for fee or tax increases of this magnitude; this is how other taxes are handled, after all with ballot issues specifying how much a tax will be raised, how much revenue this will generate, and what the money will be used for. I suspect that the reason they did not is because fees of this magnitude would appear ludicrous to most people.
What the ballot issue would do is create uncertainty, and an endless stream of lawsuits over what the right level of fees would be—with the likely effect of shutting down new shopping and jobs—ironically cutting the tax revenue we need for our community plans. The city attorney has stated that if 301 passes he will recommend that the city stop issuing most building permits while the council tries to figure out how to implement it. This could easily take a year; if it is litigated it could take longer. The immediate effect will be a deep hit to city tax revenues, likely leading to service reductions, as the city collects tens of millions of dollars a year from redevelopment. This includes about $9 million per year in use taxes, which support parks, open space, transportation, and the general fund, in addition to a variety of excise taxes, plant investment fees, cash-in-lieu fees for affordable housing, and planning and development fees.
Because of the all of these negative impacts, I agreed to chair One Boulder, the campaign committee opposing 300 and 301, along with co-chair Leslie Durgin (former mayor) and campaign treasurer Bob Morehouse. This is one of the broadest coalitions I have ever seen in Boulder, with strong participation from environmentalists, affordable housing advocates, sustainable transportation activists, co-op housing folks, millennials, small businesses, the high-tech startup community, and the real estate and development community. At last count, we had received over 200 campaign contributions, the vast majority under $100. The business community stepped up with some larger contributions, which makes sense given the negative impact these issues would have on the Boulder economy.
The Boulder Daily Camera opposes 300 and 301. The Boulder weekly opposes 301 and is neutral on 300. Elephant Magazine opposes 300 and 301. The Human Services Alliance opposes 300 and 301. The Sierra Club declined to endorse either 300 or 301. Open Boulder opposes 300 and 301. Better Boulder opposes 300 and 301. Six current and former mayors oppose 300 and 301. City councilors like Suzanne Jones, Lisa Morzel, and Macon Cowles—who nobody would call friends of growth or developers—oppose 300 and 301.
If you stand for community…
If you stand for environmental values…
If you stand for sustainability…
I hope you will also join this broad coalition in voting no on 300 and 301.
To find out more, and to join the campaign against these issues, please check out the campaign website at http://oneboulder.org.