How will Lakewood’s growth control work around Front Range?

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Posted 7/24/19

Lakewood voters might have started a trend to curb the amount of rapid new growth among suburban municipalities. At its July 9th special election, Lakewood voters put the brakes on hefty residential …

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How will Lakewood’s growth control work around Front Range?

Posted

Lakewood voters might have started a trend to curb the amount of rapid new growth among suburban municipalities.

At its July 9th special election, Lakewood voters put the brakes on hefty residential growth within their city limits. This citizen-initiated growth control initiative had been in the works for almost two years, thanks to a couple of lawsuits which attempted to put the kibosh on the ballot issue, but voters approved the proposition.

It caps new, annual residential construction at 1% of the existing housing stock in Lakewood and requires city council’s explicit approval on any residential project of 40 units or more. Lakewood, with a population of 155,000, is the fifth largest city in Colorado.

Only 36% of the 99,638 registered voters chose to cast their ballots. The light turnout at the special election is reflected in the 18,792(53%) votes in favor of the cap while 16,929(47%) voters did not support the restriction.

What does the growth constraint do?

So, what does this growth control measure mean? It depends on who you talk to whether it is a prudent action to take or a draconian measure.

Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul said, “I worry about affordability and the projects that were started or were about to be started.”

Meanwhile, leader of the initiative Cathy Kentner said she “…hoped this encourages other people in other communities and other people in Lakewood to press their issues with elected bodies and if their voices are not heeded, to exercise their right to direct democracy.”

Backers of the cap said it is necessary to slow down the construction of higher-end multi-family developments and to would relieve some pressure on existing open space sights.

Some developers have pointed out, however, that with less than 700 residential units allowed per year that it can only escalate the cost of new dwelling units as well as further appreciating market values on existing residences.

Others think that it will put up a “wall” around Lakewood with needed residential development spilling over into Wheat Ridge, Arvada and unincorporated Jefferson County.

Flawed but well intentioned

I view the Lakewood initiative of limiting residential growth to a stingy 1% of the existing housing stock as arbitrary and without much foundation. Obviously, it was crafted to target large apartment complexes - the kind I understand and which exists in other suburban communities, like Westminster.

But why pick 1% versus say 2%, 3% or 5% of existing housing units? There should be some logic behind what figure or amount is used.

For a community of 155,000 people, less than 700 new dwellings seem pretty restrictive.

Another factor to consider is how much remaining undeveloped land is within Lakewood. Furthermore, does the city have an open space acquisition program to protect land and quality of life? If Lakewood does not have such a program, they should get on the ball. How will the mechanics of the plan work? Is it a first come-first served approach? Or will there be an allocation of units to single family detached, townhouses, apartments and condominiums? What happens to residential projects that were already under review or had been approved, but had not pulled building permits yet?

Theoretically, the whole 1% allocation could be swallowed up with a couple of new apartment complexes. Also, is workforce housing (some call it affordable housing) included or are such projects outside of the number of units allowed annually?

There are lots of questions to work through. However, at the same time, at least the citizens in one community chose to take the initiative after city council wouldn’t to curtail runaway residential growth!

Growth control measures are unique in Colorado

Growth control or growth management practices are unique among Colorado cities and towns. Boulder, Westminster and Golden come to mind where there are current or past practices which have curtailed unobstructed residential construction.

Boulder’s thrust was to limit growth through its heralded open space program which used taxpayers’ money to purchase major amounts of raw land to preserve as open space.

Westminster’s approach was tied to its ability to serve new utility customers with an emphasis on water resources and both water and wastewater treatment capacities. Westminster did away with its growth management plan within the last couple of years, to the chagrin of some of us. It is important to point out that growth restraints have been tested in courts and found to be legal.

Growth control should be re-established

Westminster should not have done away with its growth management framework. It would be serving the community well and residents would feel better about all of the new apartment complexes and added traffic if they knew there was some ceiling or maximum amount allowed in a given year. Plus, how many more apartment complexes can the city serve with its current water resources? We already know about the outfall sewer line capacity problems (which are being fixed).

Plenty of more residential in the pipeline

The amount of growth and especially the number of new apartments are major issues in the current Westminster city council race: There is no doubt about it!

People are upset with the increased traffic in Westminster. Yes, not all of the added vehicles are generated from new Westminster apartments and single-family subdivisions. Regardless, it has voters upset.

Plus, there is no sign of the pace or amount of new residential development slowing down. The Pillar of Fire land which covers 235 acres of land and which people are calling “the farm land between Lowell and Federal Boulevards” is in the planning queue.

The developer of the six-acre parcel sold by St. Mark’s Church is pursuing up to 36 apartment units to the acre and there are plenty of existing higher density opportunities in the “New Downtown” for apartments and townhomes to name a few sites.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. Growth management is very much needed. I am not saying stop growth. I am suggesting pacing growth to slow it down, for now. The land will still be there in the future for development.

But I don’t see the current city council doing anything to slow things down.

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.

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