Breckenridge, Colorado

Boulder is Not as Weird as We Think

My brother was in town a few weeks ago for the Bolder Boulder. As he read the Camera one morning over coffee, he laughed about the effort to limit house sizes in the city. “Only in Boulder would you turn that into a problem” he chuckled. Now in full disclosure, my brother lives in South Dakota where they have lots of extra space and bigger is always better whether it’s your house, your truck or your dog.

I thought about his comment when I read the article an article last week about Seattle’s effort to limit house sizes. As it turns out, Boulder is not quite as weird as my brother thought. There is at least one other city where people have the same idea. A recent road trip to visit friends and family out west turned up some other interesting examples of communities pursuing Boulder-like policies and a few that have gone even further.

My first stop was Moab where I discovered I’d forgotten to pack toothpaste and floss. When I ran into a drug store to pick them up, I was told by the clerk that she could not give me or even sell me a disposable plastic bag. Moab’s total ban on plastic bags is a definite step ahead of Boulder’s policy that lets customers buy one for a dime. When I asked if there are many complaints, she said the first few weeks were rough but all is good now. I wound up getting a reusable bag sporting the Walker Drug logo that cost me a few bucks.

If you’ve been to Moab, you know their economy depends heavily on tourism which in turn depends on hotels and vacation rentals. So I was surprised to read in the local paper that City Council passed a moratorium on approving new lodging properties of any kind in the city. It seems the proliferation of hotels is crowding out other uses and impacting quality of life for residents. It is interesting to note that leaders in a community with a far more laissez-faire attitude than Boulder are willing to use the blunt instrument of a blanket moratorium.

Later in the trip, I spent some time in Palm Springs. Driving through nearby Cathedral City on a hot day, I stopped by a McDonalds to grab a Coke. I was surprised to learn that I was not allowed to have a straw with my drink. The city’s new ban on plastic straws had just gone into effect. Now I am fine going strawless but the young man at the counter told me he had been yelled at more than a few times – especially by customers in the drive through lane.

A few days later, I read in the Palm Springs paper about a raging debate in neighboring Palm Desert over building heights on El Paseo, the famous and ritzy downtown shopping street. Some residents were furious that new buildings might block views of the nearby mountains. Sound familiar? City Council was under pressure to block new buildings that are taller than two or three stories, depending on which group of citizens was speaking.

It appeared that members were leaning toward requiring Council input and approval on anything above three stories but not an outright ban on taller buildings. Either way, it was interesting to read the back and forth between those who want to preserve views and a small-town vibe vs. those who believe mixed uses and density are needed to keep their downtown vibrant. If you went through the article and replaced “El Paseo” with “Pearl Street,” you’d swear it was straight from the Daily Camera.

Debates like this might have been unique to Boulder two decades ago but not anymore. As desirable cities throughout the west have prospered and attracted more residents and visitors, battles about growth and density have become the rule and not the exception.

Every community will ultimately have to chart their own course. But whether the issue is the size of your house, the height of downtown buildings or whether you can put your toothpaste in a plastic bag, it was nice to be reminded that we’re not as weird here in the Boulder bubble as we sometimes think.

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