Boulder's development debate is headed toward the November ballot as growth opponents on Wednesday announced a pair of voter measures that would give residents more control over which projects are approved and require developers to pay more to the city to offset growth.
The proposed amendments to Boulder's charter have been submitted to the city for legal review before their language is finalized.
The City Attorney's Office has until Monday to provide feedback on the initiatives, but proponents are not required to accept all of the city's suggestions. Supporters would then have 90 days to collect 4,511 valid signatures to place the measures on the November ballot.
Supporters of the charter amendments say they'll provide important protections for Boulder residents, while those who advocate for denser development said they would "enshrine selfishness."
Proposed Boulder charter amendments
"Development Shall Pay Its Own Way" would require the city to develop measurements for levels of service in a variety of areas, including police, fire, libraries, parks, human services and transportation, and to not approve new development that does not pay for or otherwise provide for that level of service to be maintained. New development would be defined as any project that increases the floor area of a building or site, or any change in use of an existing building.
"Neighborhoods' Right to Vote on Land-Use Regulation Changes"would require a vote on land-use changes if 10 percent of the registered voters in a neighborhood asked for one. Land-use changes that would subject to a vote would include exemptions to height, density and the occupancy limit, reductions in parking and setbacks, and zoning changes. Land-use changes that affect multiple neighborhoods would require separate elections in each neighborhood.
The initiatives are the first salvo in a city election season that may be defined by growth and development issues.
One charter amendment would give neighborhoods the right to vote on land-use changes if 10 percent of the registered voters in a neighborhood sign a petition seeking an election on the requested land-use change.
That charter amendment would apply to requests for changes to height, density, occupancy limits, zoning, parking requirements and setbacks.
Land-use changes that would affect multiple neighborhoods would have to be voted on separately by each affected neighborhood.
Stephen Haydel, a member of Livable Boulder, the group proposing the charter amendments, and a resident of the Goss-Grove neighborhood, which was downzoned at the request of long-time residents, said the current process doesn't give enough weight to residents' concerns and preference.
"Right now, the neighborhoods don't feel they have a big enough say in the process," he said. "It goes through boards or city planning and then it goes to the City Council, depending on the process.
"A lot of neighborhoods feel they don't really have a say or a voice in the changes that are coming."
Haydel said the need for the charter amendment feels more urgent as the city is nearing the phase of the comprehensive housing strategy process when policy proposals will be on the table, including some that might call for increased density to create more affordable housing, and as the update to the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan begins.
Boulder planning officials also are in the process of updating development-related fees, and the City Council is considering a commercial linkage fee that would require commercial development to contribute money toward affordable housing projects.
Haydel said he did not believe the need for an election when a project faces objections from neighbors would significantly slow down growth — though that wouldn't necessarily be a bad side effect.
"Something that would take two years to bring forward might take two years and three months," he said.
Growth 'has never paid for itself'
The other charter amendment would require that development "pay its own way."
The measure would require that the city develop level-of-service measurements and not approve new development that doesn't pay or otherwise provide for those levels of service to not be diminished.
New development is defined as any construction that adds additional floor area to a building or site, or any change of use of an existing building or site.
The charter amendment allows a two-thirds majority of the City Council to override the requirement for affordable housing developments and publicly owned projects.
Gwen Dooley, a member of PLAN-Boulder County's advisory committee and of the committee that supporting the "growth shall pay its way" initiative, said asking that development offset its own impacts has been perceived as opposing economic growth.
She doesn't see the ballot measure that way, though.
"They will have to come up with metrics to measure these impacts," she said. "It's time we really started accounting for this."
A minority of City Council members have pushed for metrics to measure the impacts of growth, but they have not been able to prevail over their colleagues who do not feel such measurements would be useful.
Dooley said the charter amendment committee deliberately gave the City Council leeway to develop its own measurements.
"It's up to the city administration and the City Council to fine tune this," she said. "We're not trying to hem them in in certain ways that make life difficult for everyone. But the residents keep subsidizing the growth that occurs. It has never paid for itself.
"Hopefully the impact is that the true costs of development are not passed on to the taxpayer."
'That's why we elect City Council members'
Angelique Espinoza, a spokeswoman for the Boulder Chamber, which has advocated for denser development to provide more housing for people who work in the city, said the comprehensive plan update is the appropriate process to have the broader debate about growth impacts.
"Clearly how we grow and how our community develops into the future is a topic of concern and interest to many in the community," she said. "As the comprehensive plan moves forward, we still think that's the place to have the discussion about how growth pays its own way, what does community benefit mean, what is the value of economic vitality and what is the best suite of tools that should work together to achieve our community goals as we define them."
Will Toor, a former Boulder mayor and co-chair of Better Boulder, an organization that sees denser development as better for the environment, said the charter amendment allowing for votes would "enshrine selfishness" as wealthier, better organized communities would be able to shut out housing for lower-income people.
"Allowing planning to be made by just a few hundred people, I don't know how you would possibly do intelligent planning with that kind of structure," he said. "There are often decisions that have to be made based on impacts and benefits to the immediate neighborhood and impacts and benefits to the city as a whole, and you need to take all of that information into account. That's why we elect City Council members to make those decisions.
"I think the practical effect would be to institutionalize the exclusion of less well-off people from wealthier neighborhoods."