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Friday December 9th 2022

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That's what she said

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City Council Considers Development in the Planning Reserve


Area III-Planning Reserve location

Discussions on the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan (BVCP) continued to creep forward at Tuesday’s Boulder City Council study session. Substantive discussion focused on the process for considering development proposals in the Area III-Planning Reserve.

City planners Chris Meschuck and Susan Richstone presented an update on progress toward completing the 2010 major update of the BVCP.  City Council, at the October 12, 2010 meeting, specifically instructed planning staff to “conduct a study of the Area III-Planning Reserve” and “…revise the service area expansion process as part of 2010 BVCP Update.” Staff were also instructed to survey and engage public opinion on the topic. In what was to be a straightforward reconnect with City Council and an input opportunity, discussion quickly veered into the core debates around the planning reserve.

To develop or not to develop?

Although this was one of the final discussion items of the evening, it should have been the first. Councilmember Appelbaum outlined the fundamental contention by suggesting that there seems to be an inevitability to the development of the planning reserve. To this, city staff clarified and stated that the land in the planning reserve is currently designated in the BVCP as being equally likely to: (1) be re-designated as Area III- Rural Preservation land or (2) to be developed when a unique opportunity is accepted by the city and Boulder County. Staff followed Councilmember Appelbaum’s question by bluntly asking whether inevitable development was the wish of the Boulder City Council.

None of the council members gave a direct response to the question but instead stated that the current discussion about the Planning Reserve would not be taking place if there was not a real possibility of development. But, when asked for clarification, no council members spoke definitely in favor of or against development.  Several council members hinted that they favored development, whereas Councilmember Morzel clearly favored temporary preservation in order to provide options for future generations Boulderites.

Conduct a baseline study, or not?

As a means of better understanding the needs of the planning reserve, city planning staff suggested a baseline study of the area. The idea behind a baseline study would be to assess existing environmental needs, provide an assessment of necessary infrastructure investment, and consider urban designs that might integrate well with surrounding neighborhoods.

Council was split on whether or not to conduct an in-depth site study of the planning reserve. Most of the discussion came down to whether a “worthwhile” baseline impact study is possible. Several council members took the position that a study would be valuable in establishing a range of future investment costs,while other council members believed that discussions around appropriate types of development are so varied that estimating potential impacts would be very challenging. Council members cited hypotheticals ranging from a zero-impact bio-dome to a high energy teleportation terminal.

Essentially, the baseline study question came down to whether the city should spend resources on a study when the value of such a study is unknown without a clearer understanding of possible development. Additionally, several council members expressed concern  about the possibility of the study quickly becoming out of date due to advances in sustainability and building technology.

City planning staff found themselves in the unenviable position of being told to find a means to accelerate the city’s future ability to react to development proposals without a clear plan to follow in preparing for whatever emerges. Council members repeatedly echoed that they wish to leave the process open enough that a brilliant idea might emerge from outside of city government.

Staff argued that the study would protect the city from bearing a disproportionate amount of a development’s impact bill, and that the baseline study would address one of council’s major concerns related to the current long and complicated process. Planning staff indicated that the timeline for a development proposal to pass through the existing process is 21 to 36 months. If a baseline study is conducted in advance of a proposal, staff estimates that it would cut down the timeline of approval to 9 to 24 months.

The core question becomes, How does the city planning staff design a process that is conservative enough to ensure the right project and flexible enough to allow for more rapid response to the right project proposal? Council maintains that they do not know what kind of project would be ideal, but that they “will know it when they see it.”

What should the rules be?

Until the dream project comes along, Council seems unanimous in its viewpoint that the current rules dictating decisions in the Area III Planning Reserve do not work. An equally irking frustration for many of the council members is the fact that under the current rules, all proposals must be approved by the County Planning Commission, a body that consists of 5 members from the City of Boulder and others from Longmont, Louisville, Lafayette and Gold Hill. For several members of the City Council the fact that residents of communities outside of the City of Boulder can veto a project that most immediately affects the City of Boulder, and hypothetically could be Boulder’s dream development, seems like a misallocation of decision making power.

The majority of City Council supported renegotiating the rules of the process with the Boulder County Commissioners to simplify the approval process. Ideally, City Council believes that by removing the county boards from the decision making process, it would reduce the necessary approval from a four body decision (the County Commissioners, the County Planning Commission, the City Planning Board, and the City Council), to just the city’s two bodies (the City Planning Board and the City Council).

But what seems like a simple request may be more complicated than they expect. How likely is the county to surrender its input on the future expansion of the City of Boulder’s urban boundary? By eliminating four body review, the City of Boulder, so often the stalwart of careful planning, could be setting a dangerous precedent undermining the decades-old Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) known as the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan.

*In addition to the County Commissioners and the Boulder City Council, two bodies that have veto and approval power over the Planning Reserve are:

The Boulder County Planning Commission:

Ben Blaugrund- Gold Hill

Meg Blum- Boulder

Dan Cohen- Boulder

John Gerstle (1st Vice Chair)- Boulder

Gail Hartman- Louisville

Scott Holwick (Chair)-Longmont

Suzanne Nelson- Lafayette

Pat Shanks (2nd Vice Chair)- Boulder

Doug Young – Boulder

City of Boulder Planning Board:

Willa Johnson

Andrew Shoemaker

Danica Powell

William Holicky

Mary Young

Tim Plass

Aaron Brockett

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