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Saturday March 25th 2023

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Why Bother with the Comp Plan?


As Boulder prepares to go through another five year update to the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan, maybe it’s time to ask, “Why bother?” Other than requiring agreement between the City and County for certain annexations, it appears that the Comp Plan, which is an agreement between these two political entities and does not have the force of law, has become a repository for all the “good ideas” of succeeding city councils.  Those ideas, after being turned into “policies”, are then hauled out to justify an action when it’s convenient and ignored when they conflict with the politics of the moment. The Plan now has so much rhetoric in it that virtually any side of any argument about City and County policy can be argued.

In the last few years, the weakness of the Plan has become evident. In 2005, that council decided to “keep the 5 Year Update open” for some years in case they wanted to annex land in Area III – Planning Reserve for a big box store. This was a clear violation of the Plan’s procedures. But the County Commissioners were silent about this abuse, in spite of significant prodding. Just a few years ago, the Council wanted to put more dense development on the Washington School site than the Plan allowed, so they simply amended the Plan. In addition to being an ad hoc change to the Plan, what they proposed would have amounted to an illegal spot zoning. Fortunately, the citizens who live in the area were able to gather signatures from throughout the city to refer the Council’s scheme to the ballot, and the next Council created a process to balance needs of the neighborhood with those of the developer. And just last year, a very similar process occurred with the Boulder Junior Academy site on Fourth Street. This time, faced with an election, the Council that was pushing the development backed off.

These incidents exposed the fundamental flaw in the Comp Plan – the citizens have no power to enforce it. To identify a couple of other policies that are in the Comp Plan but are not enforced, there is a requirement that “growth pay its own way” (in the Policy section) and another for “zero growth in vehicle miles traveled” (in the Transportation Master Plan that is attached to the Plan).  The Council has not bothered to implement these policies in any consistent or complete way.

The current Comprehensive Plan update is supposed to focus on “sustainability.”  The notion is to come up with measures of economic, social and environmental sustainability, and then see how various plans measure up. This all sounds great, but based on what I have observed in the past, various interest groups in the City will want their favorite measures included. Many of these measures will conflict with each other – that is, what is sustainable under one group’s idea would not be under another’s – and many will also conflict with the real notion of sustainability, which is, “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  And after all this , the city council will continue to make decisions based on a majority vote, irrespective of what the Plan says. So the Update process will have added nothing.

To make the Comprehensive Plan meaningful again, the Council should grant power to the citizens to enforce it, and grant neighborhoods and the community at large the power to set limits on development that they can live with.  Doing this will force the Council to consider what policies and zoning they really want to be bound by and what the citizens actually want. Hopefully, then the Comprehensive Plan will return to being a truly useful document on which the citizens can rely.

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The BVCP, when all these frills are stripped away, is an agreement between its signatories – the County Commissioners and the City Council. The fundamental provisions in it require the City to get the agreement of the County (called 4 Body Review, as it includes the Council, the city Planning Board, the Commissioners and the County Planning Commission) to annex land that is not within the City’s “service area,” called Area II in the Plan. (Area II currently contains only a very few parcels, the most significant of which is the Hogan-Pancost piece next to the East Boulder Community Center.) The Plan specifies a process through which these annexations can happen, and limits the movement of parcels to Area II to once every five years. Area III – Planning Reserve, the land that could be moved to Area II, is across US 36 northeast of the current city, although this could be expanded by mutual agreement. The rest of the Boulder Valley is in Area III – Rural Preservation, and off limits, at least for the moment. As part of this relationship, the County agrees to not allow urban development outside the city limits.

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