‘It’s Not Town Planning, It’s Town Cramming': A Look at the Development Backlash in Growing Western Cities

Managing a growing population and new development has never been easy for state and local leaders. But recent national trends may be making the task more difficult.


Stateline, an Initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts

By Sophie Quinton

DENVER — Colorado’s job growth has a downside. Along the urban corridor where the Rocky Mountains meet the plains, home prices are climbing, luxury apartments are multiplying, and commuters are getting stuck in traffic. Parking spaces on some main streets and popular trailheads are jampacked.

Now some locals, frustrated with the pace of development, are trying to slow it down.

Every place that you go, it’s overwhelmed by people, just like California,” said Daniel Hayes, a rental home manager based in Golden, Colorado, who has proposed a statewide ballot initiative to restrict new housing construction in most urban areas, which the Colorado Supreme Court has yet to approve for circulation. “Is that what we want?”

Anti-growth feeling is bubbling up in some Western communities — particularly in cities adding people and housing faster than the national average — even as city leaders and affordable housing advocates call for more homebuilding and downtown density to combat traffic and rising home prices.

In Boise, Idaho, a mayoral candidate this year called for building a wall around the state to keep newcomers out (particularly wealthy Californians). Although that candidate didn’t advance to the runoff, managing growth remains a key question in local politics, said Charles Hunt, an assistant professor of political science at Boise State University.

Regardless of where you stand on it,” he said, “the question of growth has been the fundamental policy question in the Treasure Valley over the last five years.”

In Salt Lake County, Utah, residents last year convinced their mayor to veto a huge apartment and townhome project. Utah added residents faster than any other state during the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Salt Lake County’s population jumped by 12%.

And in tiny Elizabeth, Colorado, anti-growth activists are trying to recall all the town’s elected officials for approving development projects they fear will turn Elizabeth — population 1,416 — into the next Denver exurb boomtown. Over the past decade, more than 10,000 people moved to a nearby town, Parker, boosting its population by close to 23%.

To be sure, a nascent “yes in my backyard” movement has led to laws that promote further development in some states, such as Oregon’s new law that allows duplexes to be built in lots zoned for single-family homes.

In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom last month signed legislation to speed up building-permit approval and stop local governments from limiting new home construction.

But proponents of such changes still must contend with not-in-my-backyard residents who fear the new laws will encourage more luxury apartments and pricey townhomes rather than truly affordable housing.

Pressure from some California residents and local leaders has hobbled another Democratic-led bill that would override local zoning to allow more housing construction near public transit and job hubs.

Right now, what these bills are doing is — it’s not town planning, it’s town cramming,” said Keith Gurnee, a member of the board of directors of Livable California, a group that opposes the bill. Gurnee said his group wants local governments to retain zoning control.

While the backlash to growth is a national phenomenon, the trend may well be more prevalent in the West, said Megan Lawson, a researcher for Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Montana.

“The West is growing faster, in terms of jobs and income, than the rest of the U.S.,” she said. “But at the same time, most of that growth is concentrated in the big urban areas.”

Colorado stands out as the only place so far where a statewide limit on growth has been considered and might make next year’s ballot.

Statewide housing measures are rare, said Josh Altic, a project director for Ballotpedia, an election encyclopedia. “It’s really, at its heart, a local issue,” he said. Local ballot measures that address housing and zoning are more common, he said, and often spurred by a project that ticks off locals.

Hayes, who championed a ballot measure that capped residential housing growth in Golden in the 1990s, is now trying to get a statewide measure on the November 2020 ballot that would set a 1% annual growth limit on new housing in Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins and surrounding cities and suburbs. After two years, residents could vote to lift the cap through a local ballot initiative or referendum.

He said his ballot measure would give communities breathing room to address challenges such as growing school enrollment and heavy traffic. “Once you decide to limit growth, then you have more to say about the kind of growth you have,” he said.

In 2000, at the end of another economic expansion, almost 70% of Colorado voters defeated a ballot initiative that would have restricted development to voter-approved areas.

This time around, Hayes said he’s heartened that residents of Lakewood, a city in the Denver area, voted this summer to cap annual housing growth and require the City Council to approve large projects. “I think people are fed up,” he said.

Managing Growth

Managing a growing population and new development has never been easy for state and local leaders. But recent national trends may be making the task more difficult.

The number of affordable housing units declined in most states between 1990 and 2017, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Nationwide, new housing construction isn’t keeping up with demand, and the units that are being built tend to cater to the high end of the market.

Meanwhile, since the 1980s the federal government has moved away from funding new public housing projects. Federal housing assistance doesn’t meet demand, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group.

There’s not really a federal partnership worthy of the name,” said James Brooks, city solutions director at the National League of Cities, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.

Cities have stepped up to build more low-income housing, Brooks said, but cobbling together enough money — including federal grants, tax credits and city bonds — to get projects off the ground can take years.

In Colorado — the third-fastest growing state from 2008 to 2018, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts analysis of census data — money problems are complicated by a constitutional cap on tax revenue and a requirement that voters approve tax increases.

“Citizens’ appetite is not very high for raising taxes,” said Mayor Marc Williams of Arvada, a Denver-area city of some 120,000 residents that — like many cities in the Front Range region of central Colorado — has struggled with congestion.

Arvada voters last year approved a bond issue to help pay for almost $80 million in road repairs. But Coloradans in recent years rejected statewide ballot measures to raise money for transportation.

Restricting housing development has had a mixed impact on two Front Range college towns, Boulder and Golden. Both cities limit new home construction to about 1% annual growth (with exceptions for certain projects, such as affordable housing). Boulder has had a cap since the 1970s, when it was 2%.

Both have higher home prices than the state average, according to Zillow, an online real estate database, and Boulder prices are the highest of Colorado’s major cities.

But the growth cap may not be the only reason for Boulder’s high prices, said Meghan Wilson, the city’s communications manager for public works and planning. She cited factors ranging from zoning decisions to job mix to the desirability of the area.

The cap also hasn’t prevented traffic and parking problems in Golden. The city’s biggest parking crunch happens at lunchtime, when workers who may not live in town grab a bite to eat, said Mayor Marjorie Sloan. Golden’s expansion also has been limited by geography: It’s hemmed in by mountains.

Still, the growth cap is politically popular. “People like the idea of Golden being a little town in the valley,” Sloan said.

There Goes the Neighborhood

Colorado’s state demographer, Elizabeth Garner, said the state’s population increase over the past decade hasn’t been as dramatic as some residents think. “If you look at Colorado’s population growth, and you look at it over time, you would not consider right now a boom,” Garner said. “It’s what we’d call nice steady growth, and it reflects job growth.”

Jefferson County, home to Lakewood, has grown more slowly than the state average. The average annual growth rate in the state’s housing stock was 1.3% from July 2012 to July 2018, according to Garner’s office. But in Jefferson County that figure was nearly 0.8% during the same period.

Still, many residents in the city of over 150,000 complained that new development has had a negative impact on things like parking and stormwater drainage, said Cathy Kentner, a music teacher who led Lakewood’s ballot initiative campaign this summer. She said the initiative’s growth cap and oversight provisions are most likely to affect luxury buildings.

“The City Council for years was saying, ‘There’s nothing we can do about it,’” Kentner said. “We got together and said, ‘That’s wrong, our city should be able to do something about it.’”

One project that stirred up opposition was a trendy new apartment complex on six-lane Union Boulevard, without the ring of parking lots and grass that cushion most buildings in the commercial corridor.

One of our objections is the lack of open space,” Kentner said. Locals also objected to the lack of shops, restaurants and offices on a mixed-use site, she said.

Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul said the apartments aligned with city leaders’ plan to add more housing near the regional light-rail line. He opposed the ballot measure, as did many local leaders, business groups and nonprofits.

Apartment complex is Lakewood, Colorado

New development like this large apartment complex spurred residents of Lakewood, a Colorado city in the Denver area, to vote this summer to limit annual housing growth. Image: The Pew Charitable Trusts

City leaders have adjusted parking ratios, development fees and other zoning rules to address concerns, Paul said. “I was very vocal from the get-go that this was the right issue to be trying to address — but putting a growth cap on was the wrong solution.”

The measure passed anyway, 53% to 47%.

Hayes said his statewide measure is backed by a few grassroots citizens’ groups but no major organizations yet. If it is approved for circulation, it’s likely to spark a similar statewide debate pitting local activists against real estate companies, mayors and affordable housing advocates.

It’s just Economics 101,” said Ted Leighty, CEO of the Colorado Association of Homebuilders. Restricting the supply of a commodity, such as housing, makes its price rise, he said.

About half of all Colorado renters spend more than a third of their income on housing, according to a 2018 report from the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, an affordable housing agency.

Elena Wilken, executive director of the affordable housing nonprofit Housing Colorado, isn’t won over by the measure’s slightly higher 1.15% annual growth limit for affordable housing units, defined as housing that costs at least 30% lower than average comparable housing.

The amount that they’ve given us is laughable,” she said, “and the definition that they use for ‘affordable’ is something that nobody has ever used before.”

Hayes said such critiques are “bogus” — and that very little affordable housing is being built in the state anyway.

It’s challenging to accommodate all the competing interests that come into play when a community is growing, said Sloan, Golden’s mayor.

“It’s just so understandable that people want to protect what they have. That’s human nature. And they’re right in a way,” she said. “But we were allowed to come here, you know?”

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