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Size Matters, Sprawl Happens

Developers say Amendment 24 will knock the economy on its ass. Backers of the growth-control measure say developer-controlled politicians can't be trusted to manage suburban sprawl.



In a pasture along Old Ranch Road, just a few miles from I-25 on the city's northern city limits, a small herd of cattle graze among a series of newly bulldozed dirt roads -- what appears to be the beginning of access roads for a future subdivision.

For those who decry the loss of ranchland or open space to suburban subdivision development, it's a poster image. Move over little bossie, here come the SUVs.

As Old Ranch Road heads east, it weaves in and out between city and county controlled land, between swaths of open meadow and newly bulldozed subdivisions.

Steering his four-wheel-drive Toyota Tercel past a wide patch of recently bulldozed prairie, Dan Fosha explains why he's adamantly in favor of Amendment 24, the growth-management amendment on the Nov. 7 ballot.

"One of the big problems is the cost of extending infrastructure out here," says Fosha. "We're not able to pay for the infrastructure that we're having to build right now."

That's just one reason why Fosha, a Colorado Springs native and a member of the Sierra Club, is promoting Amendment 24 to area voters. Under the citizens' initiative, applications for housing developments that are not already filed with local governments will have to be approved by local voters in November elections.

For the first time, people who live in the city would have a chance to decide whether or not they want to pay for the costs of increased development: traffic, increased taxes for schools and roads, etc.

In the case of Amendment 24, cities and counties with populations over 10,000 would have to draw up comprehensive planning maps, then submit those maps to the voters for approval.

Sponsored by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group and promoted by prominent Colorado nature photographer John Fielder, Amendment 24 would not stop growth in its tracks.

Under the terms of the amendment, the city would designate certain large chunks of land as "committed areas" -- large swaths of undeveloped land within city boundaries that, for the most part, have already been targeted and approved for residential or commercial development.

There's a general consensus among city planners that roughly 40 percent of the city's overall landmass falls into that category, meaning that the city can still almost double in size before the amendment begins to place limits on growth.

According to proponents, the undeveloped chunks of land within city limits will provide ample room for city growth and encourage developers to build on many of the languishing parcels of property within city limits.

Instead of allowing for continued sprawl, Fosha argues, future residential growth will be steered closer in to the city's heart, where the urban infrastructure of sewers and electric lines is either already available or at least closer at hand.

That will save taxpayers from the cost of building new infrastructure -- police and fire substations, highways, etc. -- farther and farther into the eastern prairie.

The amendment, however, is not sitting well with developers, who've launched a multimillion-dollar, statewide campaign to defeat the measure. To them, Amendment 24 is an onerous burden not just on developers but on the entire economy of Colorado.

"What this new experiment would do is announce to the world that Colorado is closed for business," said Chris Paulson, a Denver attorney leading the campaign against Amendment 24 in recent testimony before the Springs City Council.

By restricting housing supply and slowing the pace of new construction, critics contend, Amendment 24 will drive up housing prices and drive down the number of construction-related jobs.

To get that message across, developers have so far raised $3.4 million, most of which will be spent on TV ads close to election day. The sum dwarves the $270,000 raised by proponents of Amendment 24, who refer to their campaign as a battle between David and Goliath.

So far, both sides have garnered impressive lists of organizations that either oppose or favor Amendment 24. Some housing groups have joined the cry against 24 saying it will crimp affordable housing, while Amendment 24 has the support of nearly all environmental groups.

Meanwhile, cities and counties around the state, including Colorado Springs, have authored resolutions condemning the initiative as placing a burdensome and expensive layer of bureaucracy over land use decisions and taking the power to make complex land use decisions away from elected officials.

Proponents argue that attempts to limit or control growth have not crippled local economies and, they note, there's widespread popular appeal to such efforts. Just last year, voters around the country passed more than 70 percent of the 240 local open-space related ballot initiatives proposed. Roughly 1,000 land use bills were introduced in state legislatures around the country, and 200 were enacted.

Because such efforts in Colorado have hit roadblocks in the state Legislature, smart-growth activists here decided to take the matter directly to voters.

As Lakewood planner Frank Gray said in a forum on Front Range growth last week, Amendment 24 doesn't come out of the blue. "Amendment 24 is a product of years of frustration over the state legislature's inaction on growth," Gray told the gathering.

As late as this spring, Governor Bill Owens and state legislators were warning each other that if they failed to act, a citizens' initiative on growth was bound to come down the pike.

Frustrated by inaction from politicians -- many of whom hail from real-estate related business and are heavily subsidized by real estate interests -- citizens around the state decided to take the matter into their own hands.

By July, they had collected enough valid signatures to place the initiative on the ballot. This week, a Denver Post/850 KOA Newsradio poll of 500 people showed that 62 percent favor Amendment 24, while 25 percent oppose and 13 percent were undecided.

Lobbyists for the developers are banking on the hope that voters will be turned off to Amendment 24 once they learn more about the measure and its negative economic side effects.

"I've been here for 40 years," said Matt Coleman, a Springs native who now chairs the Economic Development Corporation and represents Coloradans For Responsible Reform, the main group opposing Amendment 24. "I remember when Academy Boulevard was just two lanes. So I've seen this town change."

"But I was also here in the 1980s doing business when Colorado Springs was not growing and let me tell you, it was not fun. I don't want to go back to that."

Unintended consequences

Leaning over the horseshoe-shaped conference table at the city administration building, the face of Councilman Jim Null was getting redder and redder as he looked down at the text of the initiative, shaking his head.

"This is going to give an incentive for even more sprawl outside the city," Null said, clearly agitated.

"And up the pass," added the more poker-faced Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace.

The Council was discussing whether or not to endorse or oppose Amendment 24, but it was clear from the comments and questions raised that Council had made up its collective mind: This citizens' initiative was a disaster.

By requiring cities to place growth maps on the ballot, local governments would face the daunting task of compiling reams of planning material that would then have to be printed and distributed to voters.

This would suck up staff time and drive the costs of elections through the roof. In the end, if voters turned down the proposed planning map, elected officials would have little knowledge why. Which part did voters object to? Are they saying 'no' to all the development, or just to the development in their own backyard?

City staffers speaking to Council were considerably less dire, noting that while certain costs -- such as those of elections -- would rise, much of what is called for in Amendment 24 is already being done by city staff in the comprehensive planning process, as well as in the master planning done for each neighborhood in the city.

"The master planning process is very thorough -- the developers sometimes say it's too thorough," city comprehensive planner Ira Joseph told City Council.

But because Amendment 24 requires cities over 10,000 in population to assess the impacts of proposed growth -- including population, traffic, taxes, etc. -- Council members were worried the amendment would be overly burdensome on city staff and open the city up to lawsuits.

Under questioning, Joseph conceded that those plans and environmental assessments called for under the amendment "could be challenged by someone who might think [the plans] are not thorough enough."

That in turn would mean that control over complex growth issues would be taken from local elected officials and handed over to the courts, where interested parties on both sides of the growth debate would be able to use the amendment's language to challenge the city's planning process.

And by turning those complex land use debates into yearly political campaigns, Makepeace argued that the future of land use would be debated via a barrage of TV sound bytes and commercials, paid for by PACs on each side of the debate.

"It boggles the mind," she said.

But much of the discussion focused on what might be the unintended consequences of Amendment 24.

To Null, one on those unintended consequences would be sprawl. Provisions in the amendment that exempt smaller municipalities under 10,000 people -- places outside city limits such as Yoder or Ellicott -- would simply allow those towns to become satellite bedroom communities for Colorado Springs.

That in turn would mean thousands of people shuttling in to jobs in the city on county highways, increasing traffic and air pollution -- the very things the amendment is trying to avoid.

In the meantime, according to Null, other developments in the county might try to incorporate or become special improvement districts, creating the very kind of sprawling, big-lot development that no-growthers want to avoid.

City staffers didn't necessarily agree with Null's assertions, noting that in the short term, the more likely scenario would be that development would occur within city limits in the committed areas described in the amendment.

But precisely because of the amount of undeveloped land in the city, Councilman Lionel Rivera said the measure would cause an "influx of development" in the city. "I think this could increase pressure in Colorado Springs, more than any other city in the state," Rivera noted.

And that's just the beginning. If Amendment 24 passes, the city's ability to pay for infrastructure will get worse, not better, Mike Anderson, the city's budget director, told Council.

"If the dire predictions do come to pass, then there will be significant adverse impacts on the City of Colorado Springs," Anderson said.

By encouraging development within city limits -- as opposed to unincorporated parts of the county -- the city would be forced to pay for developing infrastructure while tax revenues would not rise correspondingly. Less than 9 percent of city revenues come from residential property taxes, Anderson noted.

If, on the other hand, those residents lived outside of city limits, they'd probably still drive into the city and spend money, thereby boosting city coffers via sales and tourism taxes that make up roughly 40 percent of city revenue.

Amendment 24 would make a bad situation worse, Anderson said. The passage by voters two years ago of $104 million in capital improvement funds only made a small dent in what in 1996 was estimated to be a $300 million backlog in capital improvements and maintenance projects.

Since then, the city has enlisted Police Chief Lorne Kramer as assistant city manager in the task of organizing an effort to get voters to approve another round of capital improvements. Others have suggested the city sell Memorial Hospital or the utilities department to help pay for the backlog of drainage and road projects.

At least three times during his presentation to Council, Anderson drove home the point that "the existing tax and revenue structure is insufficient to support the current demand for services. And it's not sufficient to support future growth even without 24. So this will serve to worsen an already difficult fiscal outlook."

Meanwhile, the only local case study from which anyone can discern how voters might react to proposed growth maps or development came in 1998, when opponents of the controversial Houck Estate development put a measure on the local ballot that would have stopped the development. The measure failed by a margin of nearly two to one.

Sprawl and taxes

Driving along the outer fringe of Colorado Springs' eastern edge, Dan Fosha smiles as he's asked to comment on some of the dire predictions made a day earlier at the City Council hearing.

It's a wry smile, laden with some exasperation. Despite Council's dogged focus on potential negatives, he says Amendment 24 offers many positive opportunities for residents of the community.

"The great thing about this is that voters can decide how the community should grow," says Fosha. "They can then consider things like, should Colorado Springs be obligated to provide services out here so the land can be developed? Do we need housing out here as a community? The amendment allows the citizens of Colorado Springs to decide those things."

The first chance would come when the city develops an overall growth map that would set aside "committed areas" -- chunks of land proposed for residential and commercial development. Under the amendment, the map would be quite specific, outlining areas set aside for open space and affordable housing, for example.

But because 40 percent of the city can still be developed without additional votes of the people, Fosha said the developers' doom and gloom economic predictions are unsubstantiated.

Meanwhile, at any point after such a map is approved, voters can decide (in a regular November election) to allow more development outside the committed areas approved in the original growth map.

"People in Colorado Springs, if they want the community to grow, can choose so by approving development that City Council approves and sends to the voters," Fosha said. "So there is no restriction."

Local officials will have to inform them of the potential economic and environmental costs of the development when the issue is put to the voters. "I think the public would really begin to see the real cost of development," Fosha said.

But it's not just costs that Fosha hopes people will see from Amendment 24. If the vision of the measure's proponents comes true, the amendment will shape a much more livable city than the one created by unchecked sprawl.

Instead of spreading unabated into areas with no city services, development would occur within a region that is either already serviced by city infrastructure, or at least a whole lot closer to basic services, from utilities to public transit to public-safety protection.

(As an example, the cost of building new fire stations on the city's perimeter is one reason the Colorado Springs Fire Department proposed closing the Westside's Station #3 in 1997.)

Fosha rejects the claim that Amendment 24 will bring Colorado Springs back into a 1980s-style recession. "Their suggestion that [the amendment] would harm the economy is purely speculative," he said. "I'd like to issue a blanket challenge to opponents of 24 to demonstrate where that has actually happened, where a community that has engaged in long-range planning has resulted in negative economic effects.

"On the contrary, Oregon is the second-fastest growing state in the country and Oregon has had 25 years of statewide growth controls, which are much stricter than what would happen here in Colorado," he said.

In the heat of the Amendment 24 debate, Portland is being held up by the development community as an example of the kind of adverse side effect growth limitations bring on cities.

The irony, however, is that Portland has long been held us as a model by city planners around the country -- even Mayor Makepeace -- as a city to emulate because of its creative mixed-use zoning, among other things.

Indeed, opponents of 24 might have chosen their exemplar city a little better. In the 20 years since Portland adopted a growth boundary, the population and economy has continued to grow at roughly the same rate as Denver.

"A growth boundary in Portland did not kill the economy," said Bob Powell, a local management and planning consultant who has used federal and academic studies to compare the economics, home prices and populations of Denver, Portland and Los Angeles.

While Portland and Denver boomed, the economy of Los Angeles has slowed considerably after tax limitations corresponded with unchecked growth to bring down the quality of life, Powell argues. "People left L.A. to go to places like Portland," he said.

Proponents of 24 say that unchecked growth could lead to another 1980s-like recession if the national economy goes soft. "I would argue," said Fosha, "that it's developers that sunk the economy of Colorado Springs the first time because they built out so fast. They built up excess housing, office space and real estate and when the national economy went soft, Colorado Springs had no slack. It fell apart and because of the overbuilding, Colorado Springs was the S&L capital of the country."

But would Amendment 24 encourage sprawl by forcing developers out to small towns such as Ellicott and Yoder, which are exempt from the measure because their populations fall under 10,000?

Fosha doesn't think so. "Up to a certain point, there would be room to build," until they hit the population cap, after which the town would have to annex county land and put the proposal to a vote of the citizens.

"These towns have been searching for economic development for years," Fosha added. "I think some growth out in these areas might not be such a bad thing."

Meanwhile, any extra building in El Paso County would have to be approved by county voters. Counties under 25,000 in population can vote to exempt themselves from the growth restrictions, leading some to charge that Lincoln County will become a bedroom for Colorado Springs.

Supporters of 24 doubt that, and they say places like Lincoln County will grow with or without 24. But, once Lincoln County's population hits 25,000, it could no longer be exempt from the Amendment's wording.

Finally, Fosha says he's not concerned that the amendment will shrink the Colorado Springs tax base. "In some ways, I'm not very sympathetic to the city not having enough money because at any point in the past they could have said, 'No, we can't afford this development,' and turned down development plans," said Fosha.

Smart growth advocates have long argued that revenue analyses like the one proffered by the city's Anderson only consider what's good for city coffers and city services, but not taxpayers' pocketbooks.

After all, city taxpayers could end up paying the infrastructure bill whether the development happens in the city or in the county. Indeed, unrestricted development in outlying areas could cost even more because fewer services currently run into county areas.

Ultimately, Fosha said, the city's argument against 24 (that it will cripple economic growth) suggests a troubling irony. "The fears of the City Council belie their inner belief that voters don't want growth -- and yet they so handily approve it," Fosha said. "It's this bizarre thing. ... If they think people are going to want growth, then they are going to vote for it. The City Council should just relax and give people the power to approve development as they see fit."

Death and sprawl

In the end, the debate over Amendment 24 may boil down to one central question: Do citizens of any city, state or county have a right to decide how big their community should get, and how fast?

Or is sprawl an inevitable fact of life, and an unstoppable side effect of property rights and free market economics?

Though many other communities and states have taken such steps, the general view put forward by elected officials and development interests in Colorado Springs is fundamentally "no."

Sure, we can place some restrictions on the way growth happens, require developers to leave room for open space, and require that they pay fees for sewer hookups and school construction, they argue. But ultimately, only the free market will decide how big is too big.

However one sees Amendment 24 -- economic apocalypse or quality of life savior -- the amendment would change a political assumption that has ruled Colorado Springs' economy for decades.

And even if 24 goes down in flames in the November election, the amendment has already forced some significant change -- bringing the costs of growth into sharper focus and bringing the debate over growth to an entirely new level.

"Intellectually, at the Council hearing even though they unanimously opposed Amendment 24, the way Council members talked, proponents of Amendment 24 have already won," said the Sierra Club's Fosha. "Because in the end, they all came around to a position of saying 'We want to prevent sprawl.' "

What Amendment 24 says:

Cities over 10,000 in population, and counties over 25,000 population, would have to develop Growth Area Maps that would describe planned development. Voters would have to approve the growth map during a regular November election before development could continue.

Qualified cities and counties would have to delineate "committed areas" in which development would be planned. "Development or subdivision of land within the committed area can be completed without voter approval" if it's done in accordance with approved plans.

Local governments would also have to provide "growth impact disclosures that describe the impacts of development allowed by the proposed growth area map." Those disclosures would include the effects on population, traffic, fire and police service, air quality, and water supply.

Smaller cities and towns would be exempt from the amendment until they reach a population of 10,000. Land in unincorporated parts of the county will be subject to growth area maps approved by county voters.

Arguments against: Because it will take time for cities and counties to produce and win approval for growth area maps, developers say the amendment would essentially put a two-year moratorium on new building. Developers also fear voters will vote down growth-area maps based on the "not-in-my-back-yard syndrome." Some affordable housing groups also oppose the initiative because they say limiting the housing supply will drive up real-estate prices. They also say the initiative will cripple the economy by slowing the pace of growth.

Arguments for: Proponents say the amendment is necessary because politicians will never stand up to developers, who fill campaign coffers. Because growth will continue in voter-approved "committed areas," which make up roughly 40 percent of the city's land base, the economy won't be crippled. Proponents say the developers' arguments -- that the economy will stagnate but housing prices will skyrocket -- are mutually exclusive. They also say cities and states that have enacted growth restrictions have not seen housing inflation rise faster than those without growth restrictions.

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