From the Opinion Panel: Are changes to Boulder’s growth limits necessary?


Boulder has a number of official policies and unofficial constraints like a new building cap, height limits and open space program that limit population growth. Are changes to our growth limits necessary to address housing costs, water supply and other challenges?

Boulder limits new buildings to 55 feet and has preserved land around the city as open space. (Photo from Eric Budd)

Saturday, September 3, 2022 

Teddy Weverka: Growth is not sustainable

What is the advantage of growing larger, and how big do we want the city to be? The most cited reasons to use growth to promote affordable housing and to develop dense walkable neighborhoods. We want a mix of people in Boulder; permanently affordable housing stock is the part of the recipe to get that. We are relying on growth to finance the construction of a stock of permanently affordable housing.

Boulder requires new development contribute 25% of the units as permanently affordable housing (PAH) or pay cash-in-lieu of this requirement. To get from our current 8% PAH to our goal of 15%, using this contribution, we have to grow the total housing by 70%. To do this by the target date of 2035 requires 5% growth per year. (Editor’s note: Boulder’s charter limits growth to 1% per year.)

This much growth will come with growing pains and will not solve the target problem. We do not control the 75% of new development that finances the 25% PAH. Developers will build what is most profitable: that means luxury housing. The requirement that new development subsidize affordable housing drives the prices up even more. The gap between market rate housing and permanently affordable housing will increase further.

Some growth advocates go further, imagining that we can create a housing supply large enough that prices will drop due to supply exceeding demand. And some say that Smart Growth, through densification, will solve reliance on the automobile. But as long as more people want to come to Boulder, prices will rise. And evidence does not support the reduction in auto traffic with densification of neighborhoods.

Growth is not sustainable. Advocates of near-term growth need to tell us what final population they desire, and when and how we will stop growing. Without a plan to curb growth, growth continues until some natural or artificial constraint makes it stop. The natural constraint is that we grow until it is no longer desirable to be in Boulder and no more people want to be here. The artificial constraints are zoning, height limits and prohibitions on excessive annual building permits.

No one wants us to grow until it is no longer attractive to be in Boulder. That leaves us with enforcing building constraints to keep Boulder desirable.

Teddy Weverka lives in Boulder where he enjoys practicing science and photography and keeping backyard chickens. More about Teddy.

Nikki Rashada McCord: Boulder should consume even fewer finite resources

As an unapologetic overachiever, I am giddy when I review my monthly water bill. My bill has a chart that tells me my water budget versus my actual usage and how much water I used last year compared to this billing cycle. I try to keep my actual usage several thousand gallons below my city-allocated budget, and I get excited when I consume less water than I did at the same time last year. (I have never once claimed I am cool!)

Fresh water is a finite resource. As a lobbyist for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, I helped pass Michigan’s implementation laws that supported The Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact of 2008. I learned firsthand how important it is to protect finite resources and to ensure everyone has equitable access to finite resources for as long as possible.

Because Boulder has a growth limit, it makes sense that we will consume less water than our neighbors experiencing rapid growth. However, the consumption of a finite resource is a zero-sum game. If a neighboring city is experiencing rapid growth, we should consume even less than we already do, to help our neighbor who is bearing the burden of the growth that we have voted to limit. And we already have resources in place to help us do that.

Foundations for Leaders Organizing for Water and Sustainability (FLOWS) is a great program located in our community that partners with organizations to help create spaces to elevate, celebrate and bring attention to the leadership of underrepresented and underinvested voices in the sustainability world. They have partnered with Boulder Housing Partners to provide residents with free water and energy upgrades to reduce consumption. Conservation practices are intuitive in marginalized communities: You learn early how to make sure your limited resources can be stretched to the max.

If Boulder is comfortable limiting the amount of growth in our community, we should also be comfortable conserving even more of our allocated community water budget. This, in turn, helps our rapidly expanding neighboring communities by limiting the amount of this finite resource we consume.

Nikki lives in Boulder and firmly believes red chili should not contain beans. More about Nikki.

Fred Hobbs: Tear down the wall

In medieval times, walls were built around cities to defend against outside invaders. Beginning in the 1960s, Boulder enacted a series of zero- and low-growth measures aimed at achieving essentially the same purpose.

The metaphorical wall built by Boulder has been largely effective. In a state with decades of population growth percentages averaging double digits, Boulder has actually managed to experience a decrease in population in recent years.

Unfortunately, that protection from outsiders has come at a significant cost. Max Holleran, who teaches sociology at the University of Melbourne and is the author of “Yes to the City: Millennials and the Fight for Affordable Housing” recently noted that Boulder’s anti-growth approach has resulted in “a meteoric rise in home prices” and “a refusal to become an economically and racially diverse city.”

Even though Boulder’s growth remains stagnant, communities around Boulder continue to grow at a rapid pace. These communities often supply the workers who commute into Boulder daily to provide essential services, despite being priced out of actually living within its walls. Those necessary commutes highlight the economic disparities created by Boulder’s no-growth policies while increasing traffic congestion and contributing to the overall degradation of our climate at the same time.

The Greek poet Alcaeus once said, “Not well-built walls, but brave citizens are the bulwark of the city.

Boulder’s brave citizenry should recognize that the no-growth wall erected in Boulder in the last century is a relic of the past, and no longer serves as a meaningful protection to what we love most about our community. Instead, the wall acts as a detriment to remaining a truly great city. 

The solution is out there: smart growth focused on long-term environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and social equitability. It may not be simple, but it is necessary for the future.

Boulder, tear down that wall!

Fred Hobbs is Director of Public Relations at Imagine!, which serves individuals with disabilities living in Boulder and Broomfield counties. More about Fred.


Boulder Beat Opinion Panel members are writing in their own capacity. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of Boulder Beat.

Got a different take? Write a Guest Opinion using our op-ed and comment guidelines or submit an application to join the Opinion Panel.


Want more stories like this, delivered straight to your inbox?
Sign up for a weekly newsletter from Boulder Beat.

* indicates required



Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: