Susan Peterson: Protect Boulder’s environmental legacy ‘at all costs’

Susan Peterson 43XX square (002)
Susan Peterson, retired executive, mother and homeowner

Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 (Updated Oct. 13, 2019)

Susan Peterson thinks the model for an ideal Boulder neighborhood has already been built — hers. Quail Circle has everything the city says it prizes: a mix of housing (Peterson lives in a circa-1982 townhome surrounded mostly by single-family homes and even some affordable housing down the street. It’s adjacent to open space (Wonderland Lake) and within walking distance of retail (the Lucky’s Market plaza on Broadway).

“It works really well as (a) mixed-use” neighborhood, Peterson said. “I think sometimes when people think of mixed-use development, they’re thinking of Boulder Junction. It doesn’t have to be that.” 

And, Peterson notes, the development was considered high-density when it was built. (The area today is zoned for low-density residential, according to city zoning maps.)

These days, though, the words “high density” ring alarm bells for Peterson, who blames Boulder’s environmental degradation and affordability woes on the influx of luxury dwellings: condos, single-family homes and apartments.

“We have an unlimited demand for luxury housing in Boulder,” she said. “If you just let the free market run its course, we’re going to continue building luxury housing, (and) it’s going to continue raising the price of our existing housing. All the high-end rents are pulling up the low-end rents.”

Peterson is firmly in the slow-growth camp, her platform a bevy of classic Boulder values and solutions: Reduce jobs. Keep Boulder the same or similar size. Whatever new housing does get built should be affordable, if possible. Government solutions are the preferred way to solve the city’s woes, though public-private partnerships can be desirable if they involve businesses paying for things Boulder needs, such as EcoPasses or subsidized housing.

Peterson herself is classic Boulder, too. Her resume includes an impressive education and career that included high-level jobs in tech and renewable energy. Her campaign website is peppered with diagrams and articles stressing the interconnectedness of the city’s issues, references to famous planners and thinkers and an obligatory — and historically disputed — quote from Chief Niwot.

Her political alignments, as well, are peppered with names familiar to anyone paying attention to local issues over the past 40 years. She co-founded the nonprofit Boulder Blue Line political information site with several other familiar slow-growth names — Steve Pomerance, Crystal Gray. Liz Payton, councilwoman Mary Young — because they felt the Daily Camera’s coverage was too pro-development. (The founders actually said they wanted to include a broader range of voices and the ability for anyone in the community to contribute, but the site skews decidedly slow-growth.) 

Peterson’s focus, like her peers’, is heavy on environmental protection and preservation. She is adamantly pro-muni and in the camp of environmentalists that rejects density as a tool to combat climate change, despite the national Sierra Club’s endorsement of the practice. In fact, she believes the opposite.

“Density and (its) impacts on traffic and our climate are the things that concern me the most,” she said. “Certainly there are some elements of urbanism — like mass transit, like trying to create more walkable neighborhoods, that I agree with — but I think we’ve cranked a little bit hard on the growth and density. I think we’ve cranked a little bit hard on the job growth buttons.”

Peterson would address the issue of Boulder’s 65,000 in-commuters by discouraging job growth. Focus it elsewhere, she said, in communities where these employees live. Yes, she admits, Boulder doesn’t have the authority to decide where jobs go — especially in other communities. But we can encourage it.

“It’s not so much authority as it is working with other regional pals to say, ‘Hey, there’s this big new opportunity coming to the region. Instead of bringing that one to Boulder, perhaps this one would be more appropriate for Broomfield (or) Lyons.’ ” 

Boulder’s economic development activity is mostly relegated to keeping the businesses already here, said Clif Harald, executive director of the Boulder Economic Council, the economic development arm of the Boulder Chamber. BEC hasn’t focused on active recruitment “for decades” — at least since the early ’90s. The majority of the group’s work is for existing small and medium-sized businesses.

Nonetheless, big companies like Amazon keep finding their way here without economic development help. “Businesses decide where they want to locate,” Harald said. 

They come here for the same reason residents do, Peterson said: ”It’s a desirable place.” 

That’s why the “checks and balances” of slow-growth policies are needed, she argued, dodging the question of whether — or how — Boulder’s slow-growth policies might contribute to affordability issues. 

She does acknowledge the steps other cities and states have taken to draw back restrictive zoning and other measures that discourage housing. But those places aren’t here, she said.

“I hope to continue that legacy of doing what some other communities might see as wild and crazy things but which are just right for us as a community. I want to be a part of continuing the legacy we’ve had in Boulder of doing the things to protect the things we love.”

Endorsed by: PLAN-Boulder County, Together4Boulder, Boulder Area Labor Council, Indian Peaks Sierra Club, (Not an endorsement, per se, but Peterson received 100% on the Planned Parenthood questionnaire)

Who she says she represents: People who identify with her values “and have a similar vision of what we’d like for Boulder.” 

Campaign filings: 14 days before election

Top priorities: Protecting Boulder’s “natural beauty,” climate action, diversity of housing, arts and culture, social justice, good governance

Relevant op-edsCity council priorities: Taking the long view

Boulder does the right(s) thing

Top 3 for 3: What are your top 3 ideas for the Planning Reserve

City council candidate blog: Convention Thinking

Why you might want to vote for her: Peterson is smart and capable. Her career gave her decades of career experience and skills that are applicable to leadership of a city, she argues.

“I was responsible for a budget that was hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the last part of my career, so I’m pretty comfortable looking at budgets,” she said.

Peterson is also less prone to hyperbole than many of the other candidates. She cites sources, studies and data to support her beliefs — even if they are sometimes cherry-picked and lacking context. Though many of her talking points are ones Boulder has heard over and over, it’s clear Peterson has put thought, effort and time into crafting her arguments. She responded well when challenged and had an answer for almost everything.

She also expresses a desire common to both sides of the growth debate: The need for a long-term vision for Boulder rather than reactive decision-making.

Why you might not want to vote for her: Peterson’s perspective is a common one in Boulder, but it isn’t terribly inclusive. She’s a retired homeowner who wants fewer jobs in Boulder and is skeptical of increased housing. 

She seemed far too surprised that anyone might move to Boulder for its urban qualities rather than its suburban ones, or that someone (Read: Me) might choose not to have children. Peterson in her interview recognized that “as an elected official it will be my job to represent everyone in Boulder,” but she frequently referenced the desires and opinions of unspecified “people” she’s “heard from” or “talked to” or “knows” — all of which were very similar to her own desires and opinions for Boulder.

Peterson acknowledged that her role as a city councilwoman would be to represent the entire city. That will include listening to a broader range of voices.

“The onus will be on me to take input from all the people in Boulder,” she said. “I pride myself on being an open-minded person and listening to all sides of an issue.”

She cited her many interests as evidence of her diverse social circles. She’s been a climber for years; she collects art; she helped get free lunch subsidies more equitably distributed at area schools; she volunteered with an organization that helped connect disadvantaged youth with the outdoors.

There are several examples of Peterson’s weakness in the area of racial diversity. She quotes Chief Niwot on her campaign website but also praises Boulder’s white settlers, on the website and at the Chamber forum. 

“There were people here before that,” she said when questioned about that statement. “I definitely have sensitivity to that. We all came from somewhere; we all displaced people. I am very sensitive to the issue and we should do more.”

There’s also a problematic spoof article from the Blue Line’s 2016 April Fool’s Day coverage, “Bolder’s Black Resident Holds Black Life Matters Rally” mocking the city’s lack of racial diversity. It shows a dearth of sensitivity to racial issues — particularly when considering that all but one of the site’s founders are white. (Councilwoman Young, a Latina, is a co-founder. She is on “temporary leave” while she holds elected office.)

Peterson responded that she has “absolutely no recollection” of the story. Her answer does suggest that she had at least some involvement in the editorial process at that time. “The story I wanted to run was a pie chart of showing why people subscribe to the Daily Camera and something like 75% of it was for the poop bags.” 

The Black Life Matters article “does sound a little insensitive to me,” Peterson said.

Peterson on the issues

Housing: Peterson believes in government interventions to promote housing, including an “aggressive” approach to affordable housing (perhaps raising the amount of required inclusionary housing from 25% at city-owned sites) and use of carrots and sticks to encourage the market. Boulder’s  cash-in-lieu fee should be raised to promote on-site affordable housing, she thinks, but the regulatory process should be eased, too — for the right type of housing.

“Put planning processes in place that favor people who want to build housing that’s within that envelope of what we want, that make it easy to get a building permit if you want to build this type of housing,” Peterson said, “and maybe not impossible but harder to get a building permit and more expensive to get a building permit if you want to build the type of housing that isn’t what we’ve identified as what we really need.”

She questions the assertions of affordable housing developers who rely on the funding model of having for-profit development pay for affordable housing. She didn’t have particular alternatives in mind but believes that Boulder’s residents can come up with creative solutions.

“I know people will say you have to have the market-rate housing in order to offset the affordable housing,” she said. “I’m challenging people in the community who I know are even better at economics than I am” to be “more courageous” with ideas.

Peterson also seemed to suggest that the city could make its opportunity zone demolition moratorium permanent to prevent demolition of existing housing. The precedent was set in a Boulder County fracking case; the court ruled that moratoria are legal if their intent truly is a regulatory time out, not a means to prevent a particular activity. It’s likely Boulder’s demolition moratorium could be challenged under that criteria if left in place indefinitely.

In response to that, Peterson replied, “We did an open space tax. Nobody had ever done that before.”

Homelessness: Peterson’s exploration of this topic began when her campaign did. As such, she didn’t have any suggestions or solutions for how to tackle this issue beyond what the city is already doing. Her primary source of information (so far) appears to be a meeting with Greg Harms of the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, who touted the benefits of a housing-first approach.

“I’m relying on his expertise, but my own intuitive sense that that is a good place to put our money,” Peterson said. “It’s most important to protect our most vulnerable.” 

CU South / flood mitigation: “I’m going to pull my civil engineering card on you,” Peterson said as a way of starting her answer to this question. “I’m relatively knowledgeable about things like planning and flood mitigation.”

While that may be true, Peterson’s answer included statements that flirted with the truth but didn’t quite hit it, including claims commonly cited by those opposed to CU’s development of the land. She was critical of the university and city staff but not of city council.

While the source of her information is questionable, the conclusion she arrived at is true: Neither of the options that have been debated in the past year satisfy all the necessary parties. The best way to find one that will, she believes, it to get everybody together in one place to work it out.

“We haven’t had CU, the city, open space, the neighbors” and CDOT at the table at the same time, she said. “That shouldn’t come to a head at city council; that should come to a solution with everyone fact to face around a table working on it.”

Budget: Peterson didn’t go in-depth on Boulder’s budget, citing the need to “digest” it a bit more. In the wake of softening sales tax revenue, “a little belt tightening” may be needed.  When asked what she would cut, she referenced the (abandoned) changes at Wonderland Lake. “It makes me crazy that we spend money doing proposals to what in my mind amounts to gentrification of a bird sanctuary.”

In terms of raising revenue, Peterson suggested parking fees for open space. She also linked housing policies with tax ones.

“Middle-income households spend a higher proportion of their income on taxable goods” than wealthy and older people, she said (which is true). “The more middle-income housing (we) provide, the higher the sales tax revenue we’re going to generate.”

Police oversight: Peterson said she was “appalled” by the confrontation of unarmed black Naropa student Zayd Atkinson by armed cops, but she otherwise declined to answer this question during our interview, citing the need to learn more and an upcoming meeting with the police chief. 

In a followup interview, Peterson said that with “everything we’ve seen going on across the U.S and right here in Boulder, an oversight task force is a great thing for us to do. We should move forward.”

Attended March for Police Oversight: No

Attended city council listening session on racism: No

Hill hotel: While Peterson said she is “’generally in favor of redevelopment on the Hill” she didn’t think a hotel was the right project, questioning whether the project’s developers had sought studies to support a hotel as a viable use of the land. “I don’t feel I have data on what the demand would be.

Two separate studies, including one released in August, found that a hotel would generate $22.088 million in economic output for the Hill and generate $1.7 million in economic benefit for the city (taxes, fees, retail spending, etc.)

Lethal control of prairie dogs: Peterson was more on the “no” side of this issue, saying that she is “in general not for using lethal means,” preferring to be an “aggressive advocate” for relocation and pursue “different agriculture uses” that could co-exist with prairie dogs. However, she understands the damage being done to the lands right now. 

Occupancy limits: Peterson would like to see them changed from the current numbers-and-zoning-based approach — no more than three unrelated persons can live in a home in lower-density zoning districts, and four persons in high-density areas — to something that takes into account the size of the home and the context of the neighborhood such as the availability of parking.

“Right now, it’s just based on zoning, but in a particular zoned district, the limit is the same for a six-bedroom house as it is a one-bedrrom house,” she said. “It seems logical to me it should be related to the numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms, square footage and amount of off-street parking available.”

Muni: Peterson is decidedly pro-muni. At the Chamber forum, she said Boulder should form its own municipal utility “at any cost.”

Council’s use of moratoria: Peterson is comfortable with moratoria as a governance tool, provided the issues they are intended to address are dealt with quickly. 

“I think in general, when council feels like something is moving a little too fast and requires a little more thought, using the mechanism of a moratorium is a good thing. I don’t think that we should let moratoria go on for too long if it’s such an important issue We should get to it; have a timeline, have a plan.”

Opportunity Zone moratorium: “I also feel was warranted. Because I feel like the benefits of the so-called opportunity zone are more for a capital gains haven for development than they are for the people who live here or the people who need development.” 

She, like many others, incorrectly believed council was not made aware of the opportunity zone designation until the fall. While it’s true there was no public process around the nomination of the opportunity zone and council wasn’t informed prior to that nomination, the city announced its designation months before an emergency moratorium was proposed or considered, and it was written up in the Daily Camera and Times-Call.

Height limit moratorium: Peterson would keep citywide height limits at 35 feet, despite the 55-foot height limit enshrined in the city’s charter (which she claimed she wasn’t aware of, despite it being on her campaign website and a history on her own site, Boulder Blue Line).

Neighborhood input on development: “From a balance perspective, the neighborhood, what the local people think has not had as strong a voice as I’d like to see it have.”

She is critical of the city’s community engagement efforts and a fan of efforts by Think Boulder to engage citizens. When questioned about the misinformation spread by the group, she defended the group’s tactics as necessary.

“That same type of misinformation was perpetrated on the part of the city and on the part of Think Boulder,” she said. “To a certain extent, I think that was a reaction to feeling like they weren’t getting good information from the city.”

Author’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that councilwoman Mary Young is on temporary leave from the board of Boulder Blue Line while she is on city council. It may be updated with additional or clarifying information.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Though I like some things about her point of view, her adamantly pro-muni at any cost attitude shows a fundamental inability for critical review. The Muni is NOT OK at any cost. It is a financial catastrophe and blind acceptance of it is a fatal flaw.

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