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Council Candidates Fora Reveal Divisions over Familiar Issues


By

Although the typical Boulder electoral tendency to try to  blur policy differences in public with gauzy happy-talk was on full display at three recent PLAN-Boulder fora for Boulder City Council candidates, clear distinctions could nonetheless be discerned between groups of the contenders on the perennial questions of more versus less growth, more versus less transfers of the cost impacts of new development away from developers and onto the general taxpayer, and more versus less control by local residents over development and re-development in their neighborhoods, as well as the recent issue of how far to proceed with the municipal electrical utility. Nearly every candidate concurred on the need for more permanently affordable “low” and “middle-income” housing in the city, but little agreement occurred about how to reach this objective, nor how to pay for it.

Photo from the second of three PBC fora. L-R: candidates Ed Byrne, John Gerstle, Jill Grano and Sam Weaver, and moderator Bill Briggs

The three fora were held on August 25, August 30, and September 8 and included all of the 14 City Council candidates:  Matt Benjamin, Eric Budd, Jan Burton, Ed Byrne, Cindy Carlisle, Camilo Casas, John Gerstle, Jill Grano, Mark McIntyre, Mirabai Nagle, Bill Rigler, Adam Swetlik, Mary Young, and Sam Weaver. They were moderated by University of Colorado-Denver emeritus professor Bill Briggs. The questions at the fora covered the traditional concerns of PLAN-Boulder County: land use, transportation, Open Space, climate change, and good governance, as well as the municipal electrical utility.  Not all of the same questions were asked at each forum, so comparisons between each candidate on all the issues are not possible. This article will try to summarize the salient aspects of the three fora.

Matt Benjamin

Affordable Housing

The clearest difference between the office-seekers emerged on the seemingly arcane question of whether the commercial linkage fee for affordable housing that the City Council passed in 2017 of $12/sq.ft. on new office space should be increased in the near future. The background of this question is that around 2015 the city formally acknowledged that new commercial development creates more jobs in the city, which, in turn, creates the need for more affordable housing in the city. The city commissioned the national consulting firm of Keyser Marston Associates to determine the level of impact fees on commercial development that would be adequate to pay for the additional affordable housing needed for the workers employed by businesses in the new development. Keyser Marston examined the possible range of commercial development from restaurants to light industrial and determined the legally justifiable impact fee of each category of use. In intra-city discussions the recommended impact fee for office space became the reference point for the range of recommended fees for the different categories of commercial uses. The consultants determined that the legally justifiable fee for office space would be $130/sq. ft., but that, since Boulder has traditionally housed only about 45 percent of its workers, that fee should be cut to $58.40/sq. ft.

Eric Budd

The city staff proposed an impact fee of $15/sq. ft. based not on the impacts of new development on affordable housing in Boulder, but on what certain other municipalities charged. The Chamber of Commerce, in concert with the Human Services Alliance, launched an intensive lobbying campaign of the City Council; and even before the Council voted on the issue, a business leader was publicly declaring that the rate would be $12/sq. ft.  And lo and behold, $12/sq.ft was what the Council adopted soon afterward.

For raising commercial linkage fee soonAgainst raising commercial linkage fee soon
CarlisleBenjamin
GerstleBudd
NagleBurton
SwetlikByrne
WeaverGrano
YoungRigler

Casas (a self-proclaimed one issue candidate) did not have a position on the question, while McIntyre straddled it, stating that an increase should be considered sometime in the next two years.

Jan Burton

The proponents of a higher fee generally argued that the $58.40 sq/ft fee had been determined by a rigorous, thorough analysis, based on conservative assumptions and paid for by the city, and that the costs of  affordable housing necessitated by new development are real and should not be shifted on to the general public through more taxes. The opponents contended that higher fees could hurt business interests and impair Boulder’s economy, and that they would be “passed down” in the form of higher rents to tenants, who would in turn pass them on to consumers, and that time should be allowed for developers to adjust to the new $12/sq. ft fee. Burton argued in part that Denver has much, much lower linkage fees than $12/sq.ft, while asking and answering the rhetorical question: “Do you think that Denver knows about something? I do.”  Weaver and Young proposed a linkage fee of $35/sq. ft (which is what Palo Alto, CA has adopted). The other supporters of a higher fee did not suggest a figure.

Ed Byrne

Another question at the fora concerning affordable housing was whether the candidates agreed with PLAN-Boulder’s proposal in its Affordable Housing Strategy issued in June that the city, through a combination of actions, should maintain at least the current percentage of housing for “low” and “middle-income” people (whether or not it is designated as “permanently affordable”) . Nagle, Young, Grano, Gerstle, Weaver, Byrne, Rigler, Carlisle, and Swetlik agreed. McIntyre disagreed because he felt such a proposal might “backfire,” and the others did not take a position.

The contenders were also asked whether they supported another PLAN-Boulder proposal that the city add a substantial number of existing dwelling units to its current affordable housing stock either (1) by buying them on the open market, “deed-restricting”  them as permanently affordable and re-selling them on the open market (probably for a reduced price), or (2) by giving new home buyers grants and/or loans in return for an enforceable covenant that the units they purchase become permanently affordable. Weaver enthusiastically endorsed the latter approach, which he has been championing for several years. He estimated that—with the average home price in Boulder at about $650,000— an average loan and/or grant of about $200,000 per dwelling unit would be needed. Benjamin, Nagle, Grano, Byrne, Gerstle, Casas, McIntyre, Carlisle, Swetlik, and Burton also supported the proposal. Budd expressed doubt. The others did not assert an explicit position.

Cindy Carlisle

Some of the candidates also espoused other approaches to preserve and increase low and middle-income affordable housing. Budd advocated more middle-income housing through unspecified “incentives,” as well as more housing construction.  Grano called for more “regulatory and financial incentives,” the use of “community land trusts,” more Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and Owner Accessory Units (OAUs), and  allowing housing units over existing, commercial structures, such as in Wilderness Trail Circle. Byrne proposed “incentives,” housing in commercial areas, more use of “land trusts,”  more ADUs, and an effort to have the current ban on rent control lifted by the State of Colorado, and expressed interest in a real estate transfer tax (apparently unaware that such a tax is prohibited by the Colorado Constitution). He also extolled the value of the existing “cash-in-lieu” program, which allows developers to fulfill their inclusionary zoning obligation by paying money to the city rather than undertaking the substantially more expensive alternative of building affordable housing units as parts of their projects.

Camilo Casas

Rigler recommended more density in some neighborhoods and more affordable housing for the middle class. McIntyre wanted more “zoning flexibility” to permit housing in commercial areas. Swetlik advocated more density in neighborhoods and the return of the “corner store.” Burton stressed the need for a “whole toolbox,” although the only “tool” that she identified was the “cash-in-lieu” option for developers. She also called for more density in neighborhoods, more housing construction, and more ADUs, and cited with approval funds that Council gave to Boulder Housing Partners to buy an existing apartment complex.

Gerstle cautioned that the construction of more housing units in Boulder, without permanently affordable deed restrictions, will not increase the supply of affordable housing, because the demand for additional housing in the area is insatiable. Therefore, more housing, without permanently affordable deed restrictions, will just mean more expensive housing. Weaver, while noting with approval that the city encourages Boulder Housing Partners to purchase existing housing, contended that the current jobs/housing imbalance will have to be corrected before the pressure on housing prices lessens. (Boulder has about one job for each resident, while the average in American cities is about 2/3 job for each resident). Weaver proposed moderating future employment growth by re-zoning some commercial areas to residential.

Land Use

John Gerstle

Another issue on which candidates’ positions were fairly clear involved the arcane topic of “four-body review” under the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP). Since the inception of the BVCP in the late 1970s, transfers of properties from Area III (not eligible for annexation into the city) to Area II (potentially eligible for annexation) had to be approved by four bodies: the Boulder City Council, the Boulder County Commissioners, the City Planning Board, and the County Planning Commission. But under the 2015 Update to the BVCP, which was completed this year, transfers from Area III to II will only have to be approved by the two city bodies and the County Commissioners—although such a transfer of the “Planning Reserve” property east of US 36 and north of Jay Road will still have to be approved by the four bodies. The candidates were asked whether they approve of “four-body” or “three-body review.”

Favors 4-body reviewFavors 3-body review
BenjaminBudd
CarlisleBurton
GerstleByrne
NagleGrano
RiglerMcIntyre
WeaverSwetlik
Young (except for small parcels)

Jill Grano

The four-body review partisans generally argued that this procedure had functioned well over 40 years and that more close collaboration between governmental entities leads to better planning decisions. Nagle, who lives in Gunbarrel, passionately asserted that it is needed to give county residents of Gunbarrel more equal representation in critical land use decisions that may directly affect them. Benjamin advanced the back-handed rationale that four-body review “has not really inhibited too much development,” so did not present a problem. The three-body review fans contended that other municipalities in the county do not have to undergo four-body review before annexations and that the city needs more control over its “own destiny.” Burton contended that four-body review is an obstacle to more housing and that non-residents of Boulder should not be involved in these decisions.

The candidates were also asked whether they supported sub-community plans for Boulder, which are recommended by the 2015 update of the BVCP. Benjamin said they help build trust in the city among residents. Young said she enthusiastically backs them, but would precede each sub-community plan with more-detailed neighborhood plans.  Nagle also called for neighborhood plans. Weaver endorsed the value of sub-community plans and advocated conducting them over a 20 year cycle, with a plan for one of the ten officially designated sub-communities to be completed every two years. Carlisle, Swetlik and Burton said they supported sub-community plans, although Burton noted that “staff is unwilling and unable to take that on.” She questioned how “scalable” they are and suggested starting with the “Alpine-Balsam area.”   Budd, Grano, McIntyre and Rigler expressed concern that sub-community plans not be allowed to impede city goals or block change.

Mark McIntyre

Some of the candidates were asked whether they approved of the city’s approval of the new Google building, which is projected ultimately to house an expansion of Google’s work force in Boulder from about 400 to about 1,500. Bryne, Grano, Casas, Rigler, and Burton applauded the decision, praising the building’s design, the creativity of its employees, and the additional stimulus it will provide to the local economy.

Gerstle confessed that as a member of the city’s Planning Board he had reluctantly voted for the Google application after obtaining certain improvements to the design. He said he believed he had no choice in the matter: Boulder’s land use code and the BVCP both authorized that sort of use in that location. But he clarified that he disfavors bringing massive new employment sources to Boulder. Weaver lamented that the city had failed to obtain any community benefits from the development, including any linkage fees for affordable housing  McIntyre pointed out that Google will increase the number of in-commuters, and called for this situation to be addressed with a new bus system separate from RTD that would be sponsored by the city and businesses. Carlisle and Swetlik observed that the Google development will enlarge the existing jobs/housing imbalance, thereby increasing pressure on housing prices. Swetlik also claimed that it will exacerbate income inequality.

Mirabai Nagle

The question of whether further flood mitigation studies should be conducted for CU’s South Campus before the city considers annexing it was also addressed to four of the office-seekers. Grano, Gerstle, and Weaver all approved of further study. Weaver noted that, when Council this summer considered the land-use re-designation of the South Campus, it reversed the staff’s recommendation that only 80 acres be preserved for a floodplain and excluded from development. Instead the Council designated only 80 acres for potential development and the other 240 acres as flood plain or open space. Nevertheless, Weaver said he would prefer that all the South Campus be maintained as open space. Byrne said that he wants flood mitigation efforts on the South Campus to proceed as rapidly as possible and indicated doubt about further flood study.

Four other candidates were asked whether Boulder’s population should be stabilized at a particular size, and what size it should be. Benjamin asserted that the city needs to absorb its “fair share” of Front Range population growth and that an overall population target for Boulder would not be useful. Budd asserted that the future growth of the city is too uncertain to allow for a target and that we need to address an increasing population by holding to “the values of the community.” Nagle called for a community-wide decision-making process to determine a population target. Young resisted the notion of a population goal, but asserted that neighborhood planning must occur in order to guide population growth.

Bill Rigler

Transportation

The four candidates who were questioned about a community-wide Eco-Pass all supported it, although they were not so united about ways to pay for it. Young and Nagle suggested a head tax, and Nagle also broached an increased development impact fee. Budd said the costs should be shared between residents and businesses, while Benjamin mentioned “a variety of taxes.”

The same four candidates split on the question of whether the Transportation Demand Management (TDM) plans imposed on new development should be extended beyond the current five-year limit and whether they should be enforceable. Nagle said they should last for the life of a building, and Young supported their extension beyond five years. Budd opposed the extension of TDM’s beyond the current five year limit. Benjamin implied that TDM’s will become outmoded because autonomous, electric vehicles will soon transform the ground transportation sector.

Adam Swetlik

Municipal Electrical Utility

All of the candidates were asked whether they supported the municipal electrical utility, assuming that its rates and service reliability would be equal to or better than Xcel’s. Their responses were as follows:

SupportDon't supportLean againstNo position stated
BuddBurtonByrneBenjamin
CarlisleRiglerMcIntyre
Casas (probably)
Gerstle
Grano
Nagle
Swetlik
Weaver
Young

Sam Weaver

The question of how the city could reach its climate action goals if the municipal electrical utility fails in this November’s election elicited a variety of proposals—few, if any, of which are likely to move Boulder very far toward its ambitious objectives. Young, Nagle, Budd, Grano, Carlisle, and Weaver advocated seeking changes in state law that would allow what is known as “community choice aggregation,” and/or sharing of existing infrastructure by utilities. Nagle, Gerstle and Burton called for incentives and regulations to encourage more use of electric cars in Boulder. Budd and McIntyre proposed more collaboration with Xcel, and Budd also advised more buses and bike paths. Benjamin, Budd, and Burton recommended building more renewable energy facilities in Boulder. Grano suggested an increased carbon tax. Weaver, Gerstle, and Burton urged continuing and perhaps intensifying Boulder’s existing energy efficiency programs for buildings. Byrne contended for the creation of more compact, walkable neighborhoods. Rigler said the city should promote tele-commuting and more use of Bus Rapid Transit. McIntyre extolled small, distributive power systems and more electrical storage facilities.

Identity

Mary Young

Most of the candidates identified themselves in certain ways which they implied should help propel them into office. Rigler noted that he is a residential tenant; Swetlik that he is a recent CU graduate who struggles to live in Boulder, while holding two jobs; Byrne that he is a long-time resident with extensive connections in the community. Burton emphasized that she is a small businesswoman, Benjamin that he is a goal-oriented scientist. Grano, a real-estate broker, stressed the facts that she is the mother of two young children and openly gay. Casas, a technology practitioner, proudly proclaimed himself a one-issue candidate committed to a “digital democracy platform,” which would allow citizens to directly affect governmental decisions. Nagle and Gerstle presented themselves as a Boulder native and a near-native, respectively, who lament that the place they have cherished their whole lives is in danger of being swept away by surging commercial interests.


Videos of the fora may be viewed on the PLAN-Boulder County Facebook page

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One Response to “Council Candidates Fora Reveal Divisions over Familiar Issues”

  1. Evan Ravitz says:

    Eric Budd has reversed position and now opposes the municipal electric utility.

    To clarify, Camilo Casas wants voters to make the important decisions, not Council. You can call this a single issue, but it’s more of a meta-issue.

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