Capitol Report

by Sandra Eid, Legislative Coordinator

Our Legislature and Sprawl

Sprawl – v. "to spread out in an awkward or uneven way, esp. so as to take up more space than is necessary."
Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1994

Sprawl – n. "low-density, automobile-dependent development beyond the edge of service and employment areas."
The Dark Side of the American Dream,
Sierra Club, 1998

In its recently released publication, the Sierra Club identifies Denver as the sixth most sprawl-threatened large city in the nation. The consequences of such sprawl include: "traffic congestion; longer commutes that steal time from family and work; worsening air and water pollution; loss of farmland, open fields, forests and wetlands; increased flooding; and raised taxes to pay for services – police and fire departments – and infrastructure – new schools, roads, water and sewer."

It is not difficult to determine why the Denver Metro Area has "increased by 66 percent between 1990 and 1996." Although the core city and some of the older suburbs have been held within existing boundaries (except for the significant addition of DIA), other suburbs and unincorporated areas have pursued policies of unrestrained growth.

Since the state of Colorado has not reserved to itself any real authority to address land use planning (that power was delegated to local governments in the early ‘70s), there is no central authority to oversee and guide development. Planning is fragmented , and no entity is responsible for the whole. Each municipality and county competes with the others to build additional tax base. New houses keep appearing in areas previously thought unsuitable for building (Green Mountain) and in areas with nonrenewable water supplies (Douglas County).

Although the legislature is unlikely to curtail local authority, it could pass laws to require better land use planning. Two such bills were introduced during the ‘98 session. Each was killed by a committee at its first hearing.

SB 98-160 Local Planning for Growth was sponsored by Senator Pat Pascoe (D-Denver). This bill would have required the adoption of master plans and zoning regulations by counties that have populations of 25,000 or more (or that have had their populations increase by more than 10 percent during the previous ten years), and the municipalities within such counties. At present, master plans are permitted, but not required. In order to be binding on property, plans must be translated into zoning regulations.

SB 98-160 would have also required the clear delineation of urban growth boundaries within which growth would have been accommodated (planning entities would have been prohibited from approving urban growth beyond those boundaries). The various master plans within a single county would have had to be consistent with one another. Inconsistencies would have been referred to an interjurisdictional dispute resolution committee. SB 98-160 was killed by the Senate Local Government Committee (4-3) on February 3.

HB 98-1163 Concerning Municipal Annexation was sponsored by Representative Bryan Sullivant (R-Breckenridge). This bill would have made a number of changes to the criteria for an area to be eligible for annexation. Specifically, the parcel proposed to be annexed would have had to be 1/6 contiguous with an urban developed portion of the municipality, and it would itself have had to become urbanized within three years. At present, these criteria are much more lax. Annexation is generally a consensual process between a municipality and a willing landowner.

HB 98-1163 would have allowed landowners in adjacent communities to vote in an annexation election, and to initiate legal proceedings for review of an annexation. It would have prohibited the waiver of an annexation impact report, and it would have required the report to include such items as the plans and methods for providing services to the area; the effect of the annexation on open space plans; an environmental assessment; an economic impact statement; the effect of the annexation on regional agreements; and the effect on the tax base of the county. HB 98-1163 was also killed on February 3 by the House State Affairs Committee (7-6).

Unless the legislature takes some action to improve planning and coordination, growth in the Denver Metro Area is likely to continue in the same unrestrained fashion as in recent years.

What You Can Do:

Contact your newly-elected House member and Senator and urge support for legislation similar to SB 98-160. Express your concern for the impacts of ALL government policies (especially transportation bills) that encourage sprawl and reward persons who choose to live in areas far from existing services.