David Brewster, a summer law clerk with Otten Johnson, authored this post. David is a rising third-year law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.
Rapid population growth and lagging infrastructure development in the Denver Metro Area are re-energizing a debate between advocates of long term growth strategies and “slow-growth” advocates. Recently, a Lakewood-based grassroots group known as Strategic Growth for Lakewood submitted more than 7,500 signatures supporting a growth management initiative for the upcoming general election. The initiative’s proposed ordinance would limit new residential unit developments to 1% of exiting units in a given year. Additionally, the ordinance would require City Council approval and public hearings for projects of 40 or more residential units. Once the City verifies a majority of the signatures, City Council may either adopt the ordinance language or defer the initiative to the November ballot.
Lakewood’s population grew by roughly 6.9% between 2000 and 2016. Proponents of the initiative argue that, because of this growth, Lakewood is “20 years behind” on mitigating the damaging effects of “traffic, noise, light pollution, overcrowded schools and overburdened parks and open space.” Strategic Growth for Lakewood believes that the requirement of City Council approval for larger residential developments will lead to “more affordable ownership opportunities,” and that public hearing requirements will offer more inclusive decision making processes rather than leaving development strategies to the “whims and bottom-line profits of developers.”
Lakewood’s mayor Adam Paul, argues that this approach is “draconian” and far too broad. In Paul’s words, the initiative’s ordinance is “like taking a sledgehammer to the issue instead of something more precise and strategic.”
Debates between “slow-growth” advocates and their opponents are not a new phenomenon in Colorado. The City of Golden imposed a similar 1% cap on residential development in 1996 (since 2014 the cap is 0.9%). Although economic effects of the cap are uncertain, Golden’s population grew by roughly 48% between 1995 and 2016 (three times greater than Lakewood’s 15.9% in the same time period).
Other municipalities are taking a slightly different approach to addressing growth within their boundaries. Both Aurora and Denver are placing special focus on the impacts of rapid population growth in connection with amendments to their respective comprehensive plans, and aim to combat growth issues while educating the public, receiving community input, and capitalizing on growth’s positive impacts. For example, Denver’s growth strategy game encourages the public to participate and self-educate regarding growth impacts.
Even with comprehensive plans like Aurora Places and Blueprint Denver, efforts to slow or cap residential development may gain traction throughout the Denver Metro Area. In a metropolitan area where residential inventory is a growing concern, these efforts deserve close attention.