Hyperbole Battle

One purpose of this blog is for GG to get grumpy things out of the way, and this is entirely a local topic most readers will want to bypass (though the New York Times has lately had a spate of Boulder articles, so maybe this is really national news). GG has the pleasure of a near front row seat featuring great bouts of hyperbole.  On one side sits NIMBY, on the other government overreach.  GG is not sure which is making him grumpier but wishes the whole thing would just go away.

The battle is over two undeveloped fields.  One was owned by the Catholic church in Boulder, the other the school district.  Both have remained open many years after the subdivisions around them were completed; both are within the county and do not touch the city. A few years ago (2006), the church considered selling their valuable downtown property and moving out here. At the time, noises started emerging within the neighborhood: this would bring too much traffic and noise and bother and affect the neighborhood (an actual quote: “This development will have a negative impact on property values due to the large increase of traffic, parking, car pollution, crowding and noise, not to mention the loss of scenic open space”).  Nascent NIMBY-ism was nipped in the bud when the congregation demanded the church stay in town; happiness was in the neighborhood, but GG’s feeling was, be careful what you wish for. A church could be lots better than something else….

Unbeknownst to the neighborhood, the church discussed with the county up zoning the land so the church could build senior housing.  The county pointed out that the land did not abut city land and so could not be up zoned to the density the church needed.  Instead, the church put the land on the market by early 2012, eventually selling the land to the county prior to early 2013.

It is about at this point where all the fun truly begins.

As the county moved to transfer the land to the housing authority, it became clear that the intent was to build relatively dense housing on land currently zoned for a church or a single house. Neighborhood activists geared up to fight. Many arguments would be familiar to anybody who has seen opposition to development: the proposed development would bring too much traffic, it would change the character of the area, it would negatively impact neighboring properties, it is in the wrong place, etc. It seemed that any possible argument would be brought up in the hopes that one would stick. A couple seem particularly far-fetched, as we’ll discuss below, but the shear breadth of opposition arguments points to a more fundamental origin.  Basically, we don’t want to see anything change in our neighborhood.  Go away, leave us alone. Classic NIMBY.

Among the arguments against the proposal (violating rules on developing next to open space, annexing open space, going against the county comprehensive plan, too much traffic, increased flooding, etc.) is the argument that this is an important parcel for wildlife. This is a hard one to stomach as the land was used as agricultural land before being subdivided and has been mowed at least once annually ever since.  Dogs routinely are walked through the land (off leash from time to time), so any ground-nesting birds are almost certainly absent.  Part of one parcel is a de facto bike park. Although GG doesn’t know for sure, the magnitude of disturbance suggests that a lot of the vegetation is probably exotic. If this is prime land harboring wildlife, it sure looks lousy. (It does have a lot of ground-nesting wasps, though).

A related theme was that this is prime hunting ground for some great horned owls that nest nearby and there should be a preserve for them. Having found tufts of rabbit fur in the morning in GG’s small backyard, GG suspects that the owls are more likely to hunt on suburban lawns where a plethora of rabbits have taken hold (they do not seem to be on the parcel in question).

The most plausible of the wildlife arguments is that this property provides a corridor to open space surrounding two small reservoirs nearby. Of course the bulk of the wildlife at the lakes are birds and turtles, neither of which would use this corridor, and other fauna inhabiting the wetlands created by seepage through the lakes’ dam are similarly unlikely to travel the waterless grassland of the field. Coyotes have been out there, though, and one day a deer appeared (a first in GG’s memory), so it isn’t implausible that wildlife might wander through. But the wildlife corridor ends at the lakes; solid industrial development to the north blocks any through-traffic, and a second corridor to the south exists on the other side of our subdivision through land dedicated as a park but managed as open space.

In short, the grasping at any and all straws with great fervor just feels artificial and camouflaging a more fundamental reason for opposing this: people just like having an open field nearby (especially the folks where that field is literally just beyond their backyard). Hey, we like affordable housing, just, well, you know, don’t build it in my backyard.

At this point it would be easy to stop and say, yeah, same old story, privileged Boulderites keeping anybody else out. But the mendacity of many of TLAG’s arguments is fully matched by the duplicity of government officials. Just saying opponents are NIMBY doesn’t mean they don’t have good reason to oppose the plan.

The county, when they purchased the land, clearly planned on managing to up zone it and build affordable housing on it. The evidence is in architectural drawings made at the time of the purchase dated February 2013. Given the label of “senior housing” on the drawings, one has to wonder if this was made in consultation with the church or even built off of the church’s original hopes (idle speculation on GG’s part). The neighborhood learned of the land sale in June of 2013; when some neighbors asked, the county said it was purchased for future affordable housing but they had no specific plans at that time. It would only be in response to an open records request that the architectural drawings of high density housing made months earlier would turn up.

Two years later, a representative of the home owners association spoke at a county commissioners/housing authority meeting and was told that there was no anticipated development for the next 4-6 years and there was no work plan.  Residents would be kept informed as things might occur. However, the parcel was mentioned in newspaper stories in late 2014 on affordable housing as providing 62 units, a curiously specific number for something not yet planned.

When the County Commissioners transferred the land from the county to the housing authority, residents asked them to delay the transfer, arguing that alternative uses of the land might be appropriate. The commissioners said there had not been a final decision on the fate of the property and so the transfer was no big deal.

In a county where we have received notice of a homeowner a half mile away wanting to put an outbuilding in their backyard and inviting public comment, the total absence of any equivalent outreach from the county on a major project (not to mention expenditure of public funds) speaks volumes.  It is clear that officials feared any public comment and repeatedly pooh-poohed fears that this would be railroaded through in order to, ahem, railroad it through.

What really set things off was the 2015 revision of the regional comprehensive plan.  Here was laid bare the county’s plan: the land was to be annexed to the city and up zoned to allow higher density housing than currently possible. This hardly seemed like the vague plans officials had claimed, but a pretty specific plan of action. The residents response was to propose an alternative, that the land be deeded as open space (they have even suggested buying the property from the county). The two proposals went forward for study, but the result of mediated discussions was to still recommend the same housing density as originally proposed.

Just as residents have exaggerated aspects of this property, so have advocates for affordable housing. An op-ed in the paper by housing authority figures claims that this is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity“, implying that this particular property is so unique and well-suited for affordable housing that it would be foolish to reject the chance to build on it.  This is utter claptrap. There is indeed a generational opportunity in Boulder: the closing of the old hospital in North Boulder offers a property large enough to house hundreds if not thousands and is positioned in an excellent location for residents who do not have a car. There are all sorts of open pieces of property that could be built on that are scattered within and around Boulder; finding one in county land well away from bus lines and services hardly seems a “once-in-a-generation opportunity”.

Similarly, there are claims that affordable housing is the most important core value that Boulder county and city government need to pursue. This, too, is utter hogwash.  GG cannot recall a local election that turned on whether or not a candidate supported affordable housing.  Instead, in the abstract, it is mom-and-apple-pie stuff.  In the specific, though, it is actively opposed at nearly every turn. For instance, the best way the city of Boulder could increase affordable housing is by removing height restrictions and relaxing or eliminating rules on numbers of unrelated people living in a single house. It could also eliminate the buy-out clause for new housing developments, instead forcing them to actually build affordable housing in the high-demand areas where a large amount of housing has been built. It could decide to reject new commercial and industrial development that produce large numbers of jobs demanding an ever larger workforce come into Boulder. They could shelve plans for several new hotels and build apartment buildings instead. As the op-ed notes, it would be great if teachers and janitors lived closer to the schools where they work; a really simple way of assuring that would be to pay them more money.  None of these things are happening or likely to happen.  If affordable housing is really the be-all and end-all, then such changes should be right at the top of the agenda. Insulting the intelligence of the people in neighborhoods affected by the push to build affordable housing is not the way to breed confidence in governmental decisions.  In fact, one could argue that many of the staff involved in this are likely candidates for such housing and might be engaged in some self-serving deceptions of their own (just as local residents are probably deceiving themselves if they think this field is a wildlife preserve).

The simple and plain truth is that, if you really want to keep housing affordable, you look to see where it has stayed affordable, and that would probably be Texas and the South.  And you know why? There are not the “limits on building height in the cities, zoning that blocks denser development in the suburbs and other policies” that squeeze housing prices up. Boulder can dream of reaching its goal of 10% of the housing being affordable, but even if it does, that will maybe provide about 10,000 residents affordable housing, meaning that no less than 50,000 in commuters will be hoping to move closer to work (and this is certainly a minimum as most affordable housing probably will go to people already living in Boulder). Who should choose who the lucky 10,000 will be? After all, many university professors cannot afford to live in Boulder, let alone elementary school teachers, janitors, and fast-food workers (and, no doubt, a fair fraction of city staff). Do you roust them out if they get a higher-paying job? If they retire? Simply put, there will alwaysbe pressure for more affordable housing in economically desirable places–just look at places like New York, San Francisco, and Santa Monica for examples where the imposition of various solutions has failed to stem the demand for low-income housing. Basically, Boulder will have to always decide between the desire to house all who want to come (housing for homeless being a recent hot-button issue) and the reality that doing so would require sacrificing much of what they want to come for.

The sad reality is that the kind of development that would make the most sense (progressive densification across the region) is difficult to foster, as a Daily Camera article outlined in 2014. State law prohibits rent control, so only in city-owned properties could rents could be set below market rates. Developers are presently preferring apartments over condos, so unless the city chooses to require condo developments, the best they can hope for is to get money from the developers (not too long ago, a large condo development, the Peloton in Boulder, failed to sell all its units and finally offered many as apartments). So the housing authority looks to build where it can, creating discrete pockets of subsidized housing rather than fully integrating within the local housing stock and so earning resentment along the way (several other outlying neighborhoods are similarly unhappy). Sometimes their efforts are uncontroversial, all too often they are. This is the background causing officials think the best path forward is secrecy (one many affordable housing advocates, um, advocate).

The consequences of all this are not encouraging. By actively misleading the public, the county has succeeded in breeding strong distrust in local residents.  When the usual annual mowing of the field took place, howls of indignation went up that the county was short circuiting the study of wildlife on these parcels and deliberately determining the outcome to be what they desired.  Residents ran to take pictures to document this breach of trust. Never mind that the study was not to see of the potential for wildlife but to see what wildlife is there now under management has it has been done for years. No matter the outcome, many residents will feel railroaded and distrust their local government.

(It doesn’t help that county residents now feel disenfranchised: the majority of county residents live in cities with their own governments: of the 300,000 in the county, 100,000 are in Boulder city, 90,000 in Longmont, 20,000 in Louisville, nearly 30,000 in Lafayette, and probably another 10,000 or so scattered between Erie, Lyons and Nederland, leaving maybe 50,000 residents–only a sixth of the population in the county–hoping to influence the election of the three county commissioners, who are elected at large by the entire county but are the only local government for those 50,000 residents. When county property owners were all saddled with liens to fix roads, liens later removed by court order, county voters were angry at the commissioners, but the county commissioner up for reelection won easily. As city residents support the concept of affordable housing but, as noted above, block changes that would make housing more affordable in their cities, they are not likely to disapprove of county officials supporting the placement of affordable housing outside city lands).

So all this acrimony leaves GG grumpier than ever. Nobody in this seems to be clean of exaggerating things to benefit their own position.  There seem to be no honest brokers in the discussion. And there isn’t a good solution to everybody’s desires.

OK, sorry if you’ve come this far. This was just what GG needed to push off his plate.

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