The Hidden Agenda in Boulder


By Dom Nozzi

August 31, 2015

In November 2015, the residents of Boulder are to vote on two referendums. One is a Development Shall Pay It’s Own Way measure. The other is a Neighborhood Right to Vote measure. Both are alleged to be necessary to protect quality of life in Boulder.

It turns out that neither measure, if passed, will do anything to promote quality of life in Boulder. Indeed, a very strong case can be made that they will both degrade quality of life in Boulder.

This paradox exposes a hidden agenda in Boulder.

Both referendums are irrelevant to promoting quality of life. The hidden agenda, it turns out, is to stop or substantially slow population growth and development in Boulder. This NIMBY agenda has had bi-partisan political support in Boulder for several decades.

Despite having strong support from environmentalists and other political progressives in Boulder, the no-growth agenda is fundamentally a reactionary right wing agenda that downloadundermines both the health of a city and the needs of lower-income groups.


Because the primary motivator for a no-growth agenda is to keep population and densities so low that roads will always be free-flowing and parking spaces will always be available (which to most no-growthers in Boulder, is the underlying definition of quality of life).

An important means of achieving a no-growth agenda, besides making life torturous and extremely costly for developers, is to leverage what is known as “snob zoning.” That is, to adopt residential zoning regulations that require large lots, very low densities, very large single-family home sizes, and a strict prohibition of “mixed uses” (the incorporation of neighborhood-based shops and offices).

Both the “happy car travel” agenda and the “snob zoning” agenda ensure that housing is artificially much more costly than it would otherwise be. It becomes financially impossible for middle- and lower-income groups to afford to live in Boulder when, as is the case in Boulder, extremely high levels of car dependency and the snob zoning rules are in place.

To achieve this happy car and snob zoning agenda, a sustainable political will is necessary.

How can we get the political left AND right to buy into this agenda, in other words?

The brilliant tactical achievement is that the no-growth agenda was one that both the right and left could buy into, which has made it a political juggernaut in Boulder.

How is this done?

As it turns out, it is relatively easy to have the political right and left agree to both a happy car agenda and a snob zoning agenda.

First, in a relatively car dependent society such as what we find in the US (including Boulder), nearly all of us are required to drive a car for nearly all of our trips. It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican, a left-wing environmentalist, a Feminist, a gay-rights advocate, or an evangelical Christian. Nearly all of us are obligated to be car-dependent. Which means that a highly effective tactic for candidates for elected office in the US is to be a populist for cars. “I support free-flowing traffic and easy parking!!” Again, in a car-dependent society, nearly all of us – regardless of political persuasion – strongly support that agenda. Even in Boulder, most left-wing citizens buy the argument that free-flowing traffic and easy parking is “progressive.” After all, congestion causes air pollution, and costly parking is hard on the poor. Right?

Second, the expensive and low-density snob zoning dovetails quite nicely with happy cars, as most all of us see that very low residential densities and the prohibition of shops and offices in residential neighborhoods will allow us to enjoy more free-flowing traffic and easy parking.

Another reason this two-pronged agenda has such vigor and staying power is that nearly all of us experience substantial frustration each day we drive to and from work. The cars most all of us drive take up so much space that inevitably we are slowed (and therefore frustrated) on our commute EVERY DAY. Every day, then, we are given an emotionally powerful dose of motivation to do whatever is necessary to minimize those daily delays. The best chance, many of us conclude, is to join in the fight to stop or slow development! Again, the political right AND left develop a passion to stop growth. And that bi-partisan passion is political gold that has persistent power.

To summarize, the political right wants no-growth and snob zoning to enable the high-income, luxury-car-based, elitist privatopia they desire. A nice side benefit for the right is that these things keep lower-income and minority groups from being able to afford to live in Boulder.

For the political left, no-growth and snob zoning is a way to protect air quality, and make it possible for lower-income groups to commute to Boulder from lower-income outlying areas. In addition, it is an article of faith on the environmental left that “over-population” is destructive of the environment. And let’s be honest: most all of us on the political left ALSO enjoy free-flowing traffic and easy parking.

In these ways, the political left in Boulder has been seduced into being crusaders against growth and development in Boulder. Since at least the sixties, this has created bi-partisan support for a no-growth agenda in Boulder.


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Filed under Environment, Town and Transportation Planning

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