County's open vistas vanishing

As the U.S. population stretches to 300 million, the Front Range confronts its own growth issues - Looking to crowded future

The 300-millionth American will be born or immigrate to the United States in mid-October, roughly doubling the country's 1950 population, the U.S. Census Bureau says.

That's nothing compared to what we've seen around here.

Colorado's population has more than tripled. Boulder County's is six times higher. The city of Boulder has seen its head count leap fivefold since 1950, from 20,000 to 101,718 at the end of 2005.

People aren't all bad, of course. But we do tend to eat, drink, irrigate fields, raze forests, pollute, pave native habitats and then drive over them with hydrocarbon-burning vehicles.

Such habits depend on the finite gifts of the Earth. The planet is showing signs of stress,

Boulder thenBoulder now

Top: A view of Boulder from 1959 looking northwest into the city, with U.S. 36 and the unfinished Martin Acres project and other housing developments in the foreground. The city's population topped 37,000 in 1960. Carnegie Branch Library for Local History/Boulder Historical Society Collection

Above: A view of Boulder and Martin Acres along U.S. 36, looking to the west on Wednesday. The city's 2005 population of 101,718 was five times what it was in 1950. Joshua Lawton/Daily Camera

from accelerated extinctions to depleted aquifers and a climate warming from our pumping more than 25 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

Locally, nitrogen oxides from a growing number of tailpipes add to the acidification of Rocky Mountain National Park's sensitive ecosystems. Rising population puts pressure on roadways, water, parks, schools, police, library and other municipal services. The desire for sales-tax revenue to help pay for it all stokes additional retail development.

Boulder planners expect between 13,000 and 16,000 additional residents by 2030. The metro-Denver area could see another 1.2 million people by then, the Denver Regional Council of Government estimates. In both cases, planners are wrestling with how to best prepare for a more crowded future.

"If we grow like we did in the '90s, just sprawling out, then it's unsustainable," said Matt Baker, executive director of Environment Colorado.

The council of governments' Metro Vision 2030 plan puts their growth estimate of 1.2 million in perspective. It's as many as live in Denver, Boulder, Aurora and Colorado Springs today.

"If we were Cleveland or Detroit or something, the regional plan would look a lot different," said Larry Mugler, a planner with the council of governments, referring to shrinking cities.

The Metro Vision plan calls for "distinct pedestrian-friendly urban and suburban communities within a limited area," with transportation systems including "sidewalks, bike paths, bus service, rail transit and roads." It aims to limit the spread of development by, among other means, shrinking lot sizes.

Boosting housing density from an average of four units per acre to 4.5 units per acre would save twice the area of the city of Boulder from development by 2030.

"We're not asking the Denver area to become Manhattan, but even that slight increase would stop the region's growth from chewing up about 50 square miles of land," Mugler said.

Retrofitting roads

The Regional Transportation District estimates it will take an hour and 44 minutes to drive from Boulder to downtown Denver during rush hour in 2025.

Superior, Colo.'s Rock Creek Ranch subdivision
A view of Superior looking to the north from Highway 128 on Thursday. Between 1950 and 2005 the town's population grew from 134 to 13,700. Joshua Lawton/Daily Camera

The Metro Vision plan says the region needs to expand major roadways 34 percent by 2030 or face an 80 percent increase in roads congested three hours or more per day. Such an expansion would cost $88 billion, 40 percent more than planners estimate will be available.

RTD's $4.7 billion FasTracks regional transportation plan, which includes 119 miles of rail as well as expanded bus service, should help, planners say. Assuming the Colorado Department of Transportation can pay to expand U.S. 36, the same trip by bus would take 36 minutes, RTD estimates.

Tom Clark, professor of planning and design at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, called FasTracks "one of the nation's most ambitious efforts to retrofit transit in a region that, over the last three decades, has de-densified as a product of continuing sprawl at an accelerating rate."

But despite FasTracks' promise to take wheels off roads and fuel high-density development near rail stations, sprawl remains the regional norm. In addition to fringe growth in Adams County, Douglas County or Weld County, large single-family housing developments in nearby Erie and Broomfield could add 73,000 people by 2030. The two communities have about 58,000 residents now.

Clark said urban areas are eating into the interstitial space between Front Range communities, creating "urban behemoths for which we have no governmental answer." He said preserving sanctity and separateness of communities should be a top priority and buying open space is the only way to do it.

"Anything less leaves us vulnerable," Clark said. "Zoning can be changed."

Boulder County is rich in open space. Of the county's 474,000 total acres, county and city governments own 307,000 acres, or about 65 percent. Ron Stewart, director of Boulder County Parks and Open Space, said the county alone plans to spend $13.5 million of voter-approved sales-tax revenues on open space this year.

"I think, at its root, open space purchases were the result of concern of how big the population is going to be and whether we would outstrip our ability to maintain the kind of wonderful place this is," Stewart said.

'Keep out the masses'

Open space critics might say it's a wonderful place for a select few.

Thomas Sowell, a syndicated columnist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, is among the free-market thinkers who say open space drives up home prices by limiting land available to developers as "upscale communities use ' open space' laws to keep out the masses," he wrote in a January column.

Stewart counters that housing prices in Douglas County, which he describes as having a "different ethic about growth," kept pace with those in Boulder during the 1990s.

CU's Clark says open space is one of several factors that probably will continue to push Boulder home prices skyward, with proximity to the mountains, downtown amenities such as the Pearl Street Mall and the bike-path network among others.

"The effect of those good planning decisions has simply been to add additional attraction to a site that has already been in high demand," Clark said.

To meet that demand, Boulder will largely grow from within, a process that has begun with developments such as the Holiday Neighborhood in North Boulder, the proposed Peleton development at 33rd Street and Arapahoe Avenue and the future Transit Village - an outgrowth of a future FasTracks commuter-rail station - at 30th and Pearl streets.

Boulder Mayor Mark Ruzzin said past decisions to limit growth in Boulder had unintended consequences. Most notably was the 1976 Danish Plan, which capped residential growth at 2 percent per year and later cut it to 1 percent per year.

It led to increased industrial and commercial zoning of available land, which pumped up Boulder's job numbers such that 45,000 to 50,000 people commute into Boulder on a given workday, according to Jean Gatza, a city planner. She said about 16,000 commute to jobs outside of Boulder.

"We had lots of land for commercial development but very little land zoned that could help us catch up on the residential side," Ruzzin said. "The biggest challenge we face is the disparity between the number of jobs in Boulder and the number of people who live here."

Boulder County Commissioner Will Toor, a former Boulder mayor, said a dearth of housing in Boulder has major transportation impacts in addition to driving new-housing demand in Weld County, where homes are replacing grasslands at an accelerating rate.

"Interesting, and I think counterintuitively, I think one thing we can do to reduce the environmental impact of commuting and growth is to provide more housing within the community," Toor said.