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City Proposes Changes to Planning Reserve Process



City staff have proposed a subtle but important change to the policies governing the Planning Reserve.  Current rules require any development in the area to show that it meets a need that can’t be satisfied in the already-developed area of the city.  Staff’s proposal would, instead, require development to show that it achieves certain community goals.

The Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan designates 680 acres on the northern edge of Boulder as “Area III – Planning Reserve.”  It was set aside in 1993 as a location for possible future development, and in 2005 the BVCP was amended to state that the area should only be developed in order to satisfy a “priority need that cannot be met within the existing service area.”  Planning staff are proposing to ease the process for developing the land, including possibly changing that criterion to require any new development in the Reserve to satisfy the BVCP’s sustainability and other goals, with the intention of both clarifying and lowering the threshold for development.

The BVCP partitions Boulder and its surroundings into three pieces.  Area I is the city; Area II is land outside the city but planned for annexation; and Area III is land to be preserved in its rural character.  Areas I and II make up the city’s service area.  Area III – Planning Reserve fits between Areas II and III in a sense, as the part of Area III that could, in the future, be designated for annexation.

The proposed policy changes are independent of any specific development proposals for the land.  Property owners have floated two possible projects recently: one for a multi-sport athletic training center, and another for a mixed housing and farming development termed “Agriburbia.”  Use of the land for a future Naropa University campus is also a recurring idea, but Naropa’s current financial straits make that unlikely in the near term.

Some city and county officials have expressed the desire to change the service area expansion process from a reactive approach, based on specific proposals made by developers as part of the BVCP update process, to a proactive one initiated by the community.  As a first step, staff have suggested conducting a baseline study of urban service requirements for the Planning Reserve.  The study would analyze the need for utility infrastructure, roads, parks, fire protection, and so on for various possible development scenarios.

That suggestion met some skepticism when pitched to the city’s Planning Board at its December 16, 2010 meeting.  Board members weren’t convinced that the scenarios would cover the kinds of unforeseen needs the Planning Reserve could be called upon to meet.  Board member Tim Plass wanted to be sure any study left flexibility for “truly visionary projects that we can’t even conceive of currently.”  Danica Powell suggested, perhaps with tongue in cheek, that the area might be needed as a mortuary, in which case it wouldn’t demand much in the way of services.  Andrew Shoemaker wasn’t convinced of the need for a change in approach.  “I don’t see why we’re shying away from this reactive process,” he said.

Under the current rules for service area expansion, there are three steps in the process that each require approval by the city’s Planning Board, the City Council, the county’s Planning Commission, and the County Commissioners — what’s called four-body approval.  Part of staff’s proposal includes allowing some steps to be approved just by the Planning Board and City Council, in order to streamline and speed the process.

Based on the (sometimes conflicting) guidance given by the Planning Board, staff will draw up a more specific briefing paper on the service area expansion process.  The intention is to convene a focus group of community members to study ideas, and then hold a public meeting on any proposed changes.  The results will then be incorporated into the BVCP update, which is scheduled for final approval next summer.

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