For more than a year, Boulder County residents and government have squared off over a 20-acre stretch of land northeast of town. Tucked between residential housing and Twin Lakes Open Space in the unincorporated town of Gunbarrel, the Boulder County Housing Authority proposed a change to the Boulder County Comprehensive Plan—which has been in place since the 1970s and acts as a blueprint for the city’s growth—to allow an affordable housing development on this land, about 12 units per acre or around 200 units total, thus incorporating the area into Boulder city limits.
But the process, set into motion though the routine comprehensive plan review and change process that takes place every five years, has been dragged out and contested by locals, who believe that the open-space-adjacent fields, which also double as a wildlife corridor, should remain untouched by development. Representatives from the County Planning Commission and County Housing Authority, on the other hand, believe that the development is a limited, but necessary step to finding a solution to the city’s affordable housing crunch.
“Boulder cannot house all the people that it needs,” says Boulder County Land Use Director Dale Case. “So how do we keep all those people within the fabric of the community as best as possible?”
Boulder’s self-image as the state’s liberal epicenter notwithstanding, local opposition to efforts to squeeze in more housing is nothing new. Yet, affordable housing—typically defined as paying no more than 30 percent of gross income on housing, including utilities—is extremely limited in Boulder, as is housing in general. According to the Division of Housing and Human Services, affordable housing units only made up 7.5 percent of the market in 2015. The city has a goal to reach 10 percent.
Boulder’s underlying, intractable problem is this: Residents, low-income or otherwise, want to have intact open spaces, humbling mountain views, and an ethos of progressive inclusivity—but they can’t have it all.
With an influx of new citizens across the Front Range, a housing dearth is driving up the cost of living. In Boulder County, this problem is quite pronounced. While the area’s median income rose about $6,000 (up to $89,500) between 2011 and 2015, according to the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, the median home price has risen more than $200,000 in the same time frame—from $545,000 in 2011 to $750,000 in 2015. As a jobs center, Boulder has seen employment opportunities explode at a rate of nearly 3,000 per year, according to Kathleen Bracke, manager of the Transportation Division’s GO Boulder program. With all these factors, it’s simply impossible for housing construction to keep pace with demand.
Further complicating matters, development in Boulder is constricted by a green belt, or a zone of rural land that circles the city. The purpose of the green belt is to force density and prevent sprawl, thereby enhancing the city’s feeling of being an urban center, distinct from the rest of the county.
The two parcels at Twin Lakes are zoned for low-density residential development but can be annexed to the city for denser development if re-zoned. In the vision of the Comprehensive Plan, this land is thought to hold potential for growth. Still, the Twin Lakes parcels—which are owned by the Boulder Valley Housing Authority and Boulder Valley School District, respectively—have remained undeveloped until now, and thus look and feel like open space, even though they have never officially been designated as such.
The Twin Lakes Action Group (TLAG), formed in 2015 to oppose the zoning change and proposed affordable housing development, say they want to preserve the character of their suburban neighborhood and the de-facto open space. In fact, the group had submitted a separate proposal to change the area’s zoning to open space, thus preventing any future development (the Planning Commission did not vote on TLAG’s proposal). The group’s representatives also claim that the parcel is too far from the city center to be a beneficial affordable housing site. But Kurt Firnhaber, deputy director of housing for the City of Boulder, suggests it might be better for the environment to build housing here, which is about eight miles, or a 20-minute drive, from downtown Boulder.
“People who live in affordable housing work in banks, they’re school teachers. There’s really no reason they shouldn’t be able to live in Gunbarrel,” Firnhaber says. “In reality, they’re probably living even farther from the city currently.” (Bracke estimates that about 55 percent of Boulder’s jobs are held by people who live outside the city.)
The Housing Authority failed to clear the most recent hurdle in the Twin Lakes project’s road to approval earlier this month, when the Planning Commission—one of four bodies that must approve changes to the plan—voted 5-4 against the proposed land-use change. The move stalls, and could entirely halt, the development.
According to the City of Boulder, there are four affordable housing developments currently in progress, with a mix of both for-sale and for-rent units, but none of the projects are as large as the proposed development at Twin Lakes would have been. In this case, it appears the value of Boulder’s undeveloped lands outweighs the city’s need for affordable housing.