John Tayer: Vote against chaos

It’s municipal election season in Boulder, typically a time for thoughtful reflection on measured decisions about the direction of our city and its leadership. This year is different, though, as it appears two initiatives will be on the November ballot that would pre-empt our community’s tradition of a balanced approach to planning and work against our economic, environmental and social sustainability goals. In short, they will wreak chaos on our community and must be stopped.

The first initiative proposes to give individual neighborhoods the right to veto changes in land use regulations that entail, “but are not limited to, those that increase the maximum allowable building heights, floor areas, or occupancy limits, and changes in allowable uses within residential neighborhoods.” The second initiative mandates that “the City shall not approve new development that does not fully pay for or otherwise provide all the additional facilities and services required to fully offset the burdens that otherwise would have been imposed by such new development on City facilities and services.”

How will these initiatives impact our community? In the case of the first initiative, let’s take affordable workforce housing as an example. City of Boulder staff will tell you that successful projects of this nature typically demand some regulatory adjustment, be it anything from a density bonus to a reduction in parking minimums. Such adjustments will be hostage to the whims of individual neighborhoods under the proposed neighborhood vote initiative. The costs, logistics and uncertainty associated with administering multiple independent neighborhood elections also will have its own chilling effect on advancing any such project of community-wide interest.

With respect to the second initiative, it is important to remember that we are enjoying a period of particularly strong economic vitality which provides a robust tax base for municipal services. It wasn’t so long ago that we were cutting library hours, forgoing flowers in the park and struggling to replace outdated fire safety equipment. This initiative would lock us into a fee structure that will act as a drag on our economy, tying our hands when we most need the flexibility to recover from the periodic down periods we know will come. Further, it is likely that the provisions of this initiative will subject every future development project to persistent scrutiny and probable legal wrangling over their true “impacts” and appropriate assessments.

Some will dispute these consequences, but that’s yet another reason to reject proposals that attempt to resolve such highly charged and complex community issues through changes to our municipal charter, which is Boulder’s constitution. Both initiatives have been subject to a swirl of debate around their true intent and impact. If they pass, our community will be frozen in a state of paralysis as the undoubted legal disputes and unproductive contention over their true meaning carry on for many years to come. This is aside from the fragmented decision making and cost uncertainties they will engrain in our community-wide planning efforts.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The Boulder Chamber is engaged constructively in dialogue on a number of fronts regarding the direction our community is taking. This includes support for investments that benefit our community and economic vitality, the proper speed and scope of development, and environmental sustainability initiatives with a direct impact on business operations. If one questions whether businesses are pulling their weight in this town, consider that commercial properties are taxed at more than three times the rate of residential properties and that commercial activity accounts for most, if not all, of the city’s $115 million in sales and use tax.

Then there are the recent examples of increased business expenses and additional regulations local companies have incurred, including new tax increases for school funding and arts and cultural programming, recycling mandates, and development height restriction. In many instances, the Boulder Chamber supported these actions. In other situations, we opposed them vigorously. But although we strongly represent business interests, we always are sensitive to our community’s environmental and social sustainability priorities and have great respect for the orderly process of community debate and discussion, even when we don’t prevail in our positions.

Quite in contrast, the two proposed ballot initiatives are a recipe for chaos in Boulder’s future planning and investment decision making. This is far from the open and, although sometimes contentious, thoughtful public dialogue that drives our current planning decisions and more reasoned ballot proposals. That is why the Boulder Chamber urges you to vote “No” on these two ballot initiatives in November.

John Tayer is president and chief executive of the Boulder Chamber.

Article originally published in Biz West on August 21, 2015