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Opposing viewpoints see different stakes in Boulder City Council election

Political action groups pushing opposing slates say it's a matter of growth trajectory vs. reasoned government

Voters at the Boulder County Clerk’s office in 2016.
Voters at the Boulder County Clerk’s office in 2016.
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Stakes are higher Tuesday than on most Boulder City Council election nights, with one more seat being filled than is typical in election years.

Fifteen candidates are vying for six seats, rather than the typical five, because of Jill Adler Grano’s resignation from council in January. The top four vote earners will be awarded four-year terms, and the candidates who rank fifth and sixth in number of votes will serve two-year terms.

Some say this next council will set the stage for how big the city will grow, while others say the election provides an opportunity for broader-focused leadership to take the dais.

Peter Mayer, co-chair of PLAN-Boulder County, a political group advocating slow and careful growth of the city, said he believes this election will determine Boulder’s growth trajectory and building density pattern. Leaders of a separate group known as The Coalition though, have made the race out to be about sound and reasoned governance.

Former City Councilmember Steve Pomerance, who feels PLAN candidates align most closely with his policy suggestions, has called Coalition candidates’ position statements nebulous and, as a result of their apparent desire to be different than PLAN, likely in favor of “a lot of development.”

Jan Burton, another former Council member and steering committee member for Better Boulder, an advocacy group under The Coalition’s umbrella, disagrees with that assessment of the slate of Coalition-endorsed candidates.

“The whole thing is us as pro-growth, they’re the slow-growth, that’s not what this election is about in my view,” Burton said. “… Our slate is not a pro-growth slate. How can you be pro-growth when you have a 1% limit on (average annual increases in dwelling units)? It’s a good governance, inclusive yes, should build some housing yes slate.”

With the mid-term departure of former Councilwoman Grano, whose seat is one of those that will be filled for two years, the nine-member Council lost a voice that was more open to growing the city without the higher level of regulation the PLAN-endorsed majority favored over the past two years.

Not just for ‘elite investors’

The three members who are assured to remain on Council through 2021 — Mirabai Nagle, Mary Young and Sam Weaver — were part of that majority that maintained a tight grip on new development through increasing fees on non-residential development, pausing construction proposals through new moratoriums and continuing old ones.

But half of that majority is leaving Council. The exits of Lisa Morzel, Suzanne Jones and Cindy Carlisle leave the door open for Better Boulder-favored incumbents Bob Yates and Aaron Brockett, if re-elected, to be joined by three or four candidates on the same slate to form a new majority.

At the same time, two PLAN-backed candidate victories will ensure the slow-growth group retains a majority of its endorsees on the Council, if Brockett and Yates keep their seats.

There also is the chance the incumbents lose their re-election bids, and that all five PLAN-backed candidates sweep into office with another non-slate candidate such as Andy Celani, who has expressed skepticism toward adding housing density and called for an indefinite development moratorium in the east-central Boulder opportunity zone. The opportunity zone is an area between 55th and 28th streets and Diagonal Highway and Arapahoe Avenue where investment made with capital gains allows taxes on those gains to be deferred, and a complete tax deduction on the appreciation of such a real estate venture after 10 years.

Council over the last year tweaked development rules for the local zoning districts within the opportunity zone area, and last month lifted a moratoriumon development . The zoning changes were aimed at preventing undesirable project proposals, like large office buildings rather than Council-preferred housing and retail.

PLAN-Boulder County’s Mayer believes development policy within the opportunity zone is where divergence is greatest between the opposing candidate slates.

“The candidates endorsed by PLAN understand the real threat posed by what the New York Times called a ‘once in a lifetime bonanza for elite investors,’” Mayer said. “… If elected, the candidates PLAN has endorsed will work to ensure that development within the opportunity zone meets Boulder’s actual needs and objectives, not just those of elite investors.”

Mayer did not elaborate on what more his group believes could be done beyond the changes Council made to local development codes.

Councilman Weaver in October proposed, and then withdrew, an idea to have staff research whether Boulder could find a way to identify developers planning to use the tax break and then require higher-than-standard development impact fees or other community benefit provisions for project approval.

Experts doubt the city could enforce such rules, if they were adopted.

‘Yes’ rather than ‘no’

Leslie Durgin, a former Council member and spokesperson for the Coalition, characterized the now-lifted opportunity zone development moratorium as a “knee jerk reaction” she believes Coalition candidates would avoid replicating on other issues.

“I think the major change we’re hoping for is simply to put in a Council that says ‘yes’ rather than ‘no,’” Durgin said. “… The city’s grip (on development) is extensive, and it’s slow and it really, I think, is overly prescriptive in many areas and doesn’t allow for much creativity. They demonize developers. There are some really good developers in Boulder who care deeply about inclusivity and the kinds of people who could live here. (Project approval) is never certain. You do everything (city officials) want and … then the city wants a couple more things.”

Pomerance said he feels the PLAN and Together4Boulder-backed candidates are more likely than the opposing slate to cultivate through community surveys what he believes is a prerequisite to measure the effectiveness of any development policy: a numbers-based vision of residents’ preferred population and job offerings in Boulder for years into the future.

Doing so, Pomerance said, would allow planning officials to match the zoning and land use regulations to specific goals for capacity.

“It’s what Boulder needs,” Pomerance said.

Decreasing traffic congestion, much of which is caused by the 60,000-plus working commuters into the city who live in less expensive areas of Boulder County, as well as Weld and Adams counties, won’t be solved by simply promoting the “compact development” Coalition leaders have promoted, Pomerance said.

“You can’t have an abstract, vague discussion, saying you can add more people in (certain) areas, and if you doubled the population within 150 yards of current shopping centers and coffee shops, more people would walk there,” he said. “But you haven’t solved the traffic problem. You just have more people, more traffic, because they will also drive.

“… This is where I look for (candidates) who want to solve the problem and not do what their slate told them to, so to speak, which is add more people,” Pomerance said. “I like to look for the (candidates) that are looking for solutions for the people already here. … It would make a lot more sense to have a polycentric approach to jobs, to say where all the jobs aren’t in Boulder, but they move out to other cities.”

Durgin, of The Coalition, acknowledged a long-term vision for the city’s development pattern would be useful, but contends it should not be based on numbers as much as imagery, such as visual renderings of how the city’s skyline and street-views would appear at various points in the future depending on the rate of Boulder’s growth. But she wouldn’t want such a process to stop the next Council from working on planning projects that could could attract new affordable housing.

“It would take forever to come up with a couple different scenarios, some pictures, so they could knowledgeably weigh in more than just numbers,” Durgin said, adding that Council in the 1990s spent a great deal of time on a project similar to what Pomerance suggested. “… I would hate to see the Council say, ‘We’re not going to get anything done until we know what we want Boulder to be in 20, 30, 50 years from now.’ … I do think we’re a divided community about what we’re going to be in the future. It’s an evolving, changing thing. … From my point of view, PLAN-Boulder works backwards and they say, ‘We wish it was more like the little community we moved to 20 years ago.’”

Slates versus diversity

Outgoing Mayor Jones said she believes there is strong consensus among most Boulder residents on ensuring new housing construction is affordable to individuals and families on the lower end and in the center of the income spectrum. But how the current Council approached bringing such housing to the city is flawed, according to Burton, because it relied too much on policy to create affordable dwellings without leaving enough room for market-rate projects.

“(The last council) wanted to build only affordable housing, and wanted to ratchet it up with developers’ (fees),” Burton said. “When you ratchet up the percentage of affordable housing a developer has to build, I think it’s 25% now, what that means is the other 75% just went up in cost. They have to make their project work. I’m not pro-developer, I’m pro-people. But a developer has to go get funding.”

Receiving financing, Burton said, can only be achieved when a housing project’s prices for residents make construction costs worthwhile, which she believes The Coalition and Better Boulder slates understand more than other candidates.

Jones, although formerly a PLAN board member, cautioned voters against voting for exclusively one slate over the other.

“I hope that voters don’t pick one slate or the other, but choose a diversity of opinions and backgrounds of council members to serve, because that’s how you get the best crafted solutions,” Jones said. “And you bring the community along.”

Young, one of the three Council members continuing on terms through 2021, also is worried by the continuance of candidate slates aligned on respective sides of ways to boost housing affordability. Young, who was endorsed by PLAN in the last election, has supported Nikki McCord’s campaign, which McCord said has purposely not sought endorsements from any of the political action groups funding support for the respective slates.

“Here’s what I am nervous about: this new trend of having slates of candidates, and having a very binary approach to governance where you’re polling either to one side or the other side,” Young said last month. “The net effect is the city moving sideways instead of moving forward and that concerns me. It’s a governance issue that I’m concerned about.”

No matter the outcome, the PLAN and Coalition groups have different agendas once the new Council is in place, with the former planning to stay active in an advisory capacity to city leaders, and the latter planning to take a back seat without steering new elects.

“Regardless of who is elected Tuesday,  PLAN-Boulder intends to work with and advise the new Council on the best ways to move Boulder into the future,” Mayer said.

Durgin said The Coalition wants candidates to feel empowered once they’re in place.

“The Coalition is not going to be in the background saying, ‘You should do this, you shouldn’t do that.’ We’re not going to be … a power group trying to direct,” Durgin said.

Boulder City Council candidates

PLAN-Boulder County and Together4Boulder endorsements:

  • Susan Peterson, Adam Swetlik, Mark Wallach, Brian Dolan, Corina Julca

The Coalition and Boulder Progressives endorsements:

  • Aaron Brockett, Rachel Friend, Mark McIntyre, Benita Duran, Junie Joseph
  • (Bob Yates has been endorsed by three political groups working alongside The Coalition in Better Boulder, Open Boulder and South Boulder Creek Action Group)

Other candidates:

  • Nikki McCord, Paul Cure, Andy Celani, Gala Orba

For profiles on each City Council candidate, visit dailycamera.com/2019/10/11/2019-boulder-city-council-candidate-profiles/

Ballots are due no later than 7 p.m. Tuesday; for a map of voter service and polling centers and 24-hour ballot drop-off locations in Boulder County, visit bouldercounty.org/elections/information/voting-locations/

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