BOULDER, Colo. –
In the 1950s, while Boulder was in the middle of a massive growth spurt, two University of Colorado professors met outside the Norlin Library, paused to look up into the foothills and — concerned by what they saw — formed an alliance that would lay the foundation for the city’s now-famous open space program.
Mathematician Robert McKelvey was riding his bike by the library, when he noticed Albert Bartlett, a physics professor, walking home.
“He said, ‘Al, we have to do something about all of the houses that are being built up in the foothills,” recalled Bartlett. “I can remember thinking to myself, ‘Bob, you’re out of your mind. What can we do?'”
As it turned out, they were able to do a lot. Bartlett and McKelvey launched a campaign that ended with an amendment to the city charter, against the will of the city council, forbidding Boulder from pumping water uphill. Fifty years ago Tuesday, Boulder voters overwhelmingly approved the Blue Line — a wandering boundary that more or less follows the 5,750-foot contour line north from Eldorado Springs — west of which the city would no longer provide water.
Effectively, the new rule made it more difficult for developers to build in the foothills, providing the first sweeping protection for Boulder’s mountain backdrop. Some development plans, such as a subdivision planned around what is now the National Center for Atmospheric Research facility, were scrapped.
But Bartlett and McKelvey knew that stricter rules would soon be needed since the Blue Line did not make it impossible to build. People could put in wells or secure water from elsewhere, Bartlett said.
In the fall of 1959, many of the people who had campaigned for the Blue Line decided to form a more permanent group to address these concerns, and PLAN-Boulder County was born.
“The Blue Line was really the thing that formed PLAN-Boulder, and PLAN-Boulder was instrumental in starting the whole open space program,” said Susan Peterson, a board member for the group, which is celebrating its own 50th anniversary this year.
Eventually, PLAN-Boulder County spearheaded the campaign to pass Boulder’s open space tax, the first in the country, in 1967. Today, the city owns more than 45,000 acres of open space, which attracts 5.3 million visitors a year.
Even with so much land, PLAN-Boulder County hasn’t let down its guard, Peterson said.
“We’re still really vigilant about the whole preserving of our open space,” she said. “There’s a tendency for people to be a little lackadaisical about it.”