Featured, Land Use, Randal O'Toole, Transit, Transportation, Uncategorized

O’Toole: Gov. Polis’ land-use takeover disregards how people want to live

(Editor’s note: This is first in a series on Governor Polis’ “Roadmap to Colorado’s Future: 2026)

Colorado will celebrate its 150th birthday in 2026, and to celebrate Governor Jared Polis has proposed what he thinks is a “visionary” land-use and transportation plan. In fact, it is just a tired old rehash of recent urban planning fads that are based on obsolete views of how people want to live.

The plan is partly a repackaging of a bill the governor promoted in the last session of the state legislature that would have given cities housing targets and required them to build more multifamily housing to meet those targets. The bill was defeated thanks to strong opposition from city governments that didn’t want the state to preempt their zoning powers, but that didn’t sway Polis.

The plan also includes a passenger train from Fort Collins to Pueblo “and eventually Cheyenne, WY to Albuquerque NM” plus various other public transit projects. Such projects would be supported by numerous four- and five-story apartment buildings, often known as “transit-oriented developments,” even though there isn’t much evidence that they boost transit ridership.

Since 1992, the Denver region has spent more than $10 billion (adjusted for inflation to today’s money) planning and building 60 miles of light-rail lines and 50 miles of commuter-rail lines. The region has also used hundreds of millions of dollars of tax-increment financing and affordable housing funds to subsidize the construction of scores if not hundreds of so-called transit-oriented developments in the Denver metro area.

Transit boosters claim these programs are a great success. The numbers say different. Census data show that 4.68 percent of the region’s workers commuted by transit in 1990 before any rail transit existed. As of 2019, this had increased to 4.79 percent. A tenth of a percent increase in transit’s share of commuting hardly constitutes a great success for a program that cost well over $10 billion.

Meanwhile, one of the supporters of the Polis plan says the goal is to “navigate growth without forsaking the essence of our Coloradan identity.” Yet I hardly think that the essence of the Colorado identity is living in a cramped apartment in a four- or five-story complex that happens to be on a bus or rail line.

Polis hopes to overcome the cities’ objections to state pre-emption of zoning authority by relying on carrots instead of sticks, in other words by giving cities funds to build higher-density housing. But why is such housing needed in Colorado anyway? If people wanted to live in such housing, it wouldn’t have to be subsidized. But people don’t move to Colorado from crowded cities like New York just so they can live in another crowded city whose mid-rise apartment buildings are inspired by New York’s Greenwich Village.

Misreading the data

Urban-rural data from the 2020 census found that 86 percent of Colorado residents live in urban areas that cover just 1.5 percent of the state. While 2020 census criteria counted some communities of as many as 5,000 people as “rural,” even redefining such communities as urban leaves 98 percent of the state as rural.

Packing people into high-density housing is necessary because “Between 1982 and 2017, Colorado lost over 25% of its agricultural cropland,” Polis’ report warns. “In the same time period, the size of urban and built-up areas grew faster than population.” That’s an incredibly deliberate misreading of the data.

Colorado has a total of 66.4 million acres. According to the 2017 Natural Resource Inventory, which is the source of the report’s cropland/developed numbers, developed lands (not all of which are urban) in Colorado grew from more than 1.2 million acres to under 2.0 million acres between 1982 and 2017 for a net growth of 772,000 acres. Meanwhile, croplands declined from 10.5 million to 8.0 million for a net decline of 2.5 million. Obviously, development was responsible for at most 30 percent of this decline.

In fact, it wasn’t even the cause of that much. Instead, farmers put 1.7 million acres of croplands into conservation reserves. Another 0.6 million acres became pasturelands. Other rural areas grew by nearly 150,000 acres. These changes account for 95 percent of the decline of croplands. As I’ve previously shown, the real reason croplands declined was that American farms were so much more productive in 2017 than they had been in 1982 that farmers could feed Americans, export food to other countries, and grow corn for ethanol and cotton for clothing on fewer acres despite the nation’s population growth.

The report’s deceptive implication that development was somehow responsible for a 25 percent decline in croplands is used to justify maintaining the urban-growth boundaries and other rural land restrictions that have made housing expensive in Denver, Boulder, and other Colorado urban areas. If Polis were seriously interested in making housing affordable, he would propose legislation to take away the power of regional and local governments to impose such restrictions.

If that happened, then perhaps 2.5 percent of Colorado will be urbanized in the foreseeable future. That is a small price to pay for more affordable housing. Unfortunately, Polis has been swayed by the smart-growth movement that wants to force Americans to live in high-density housing no matter what the cost.

Randal O’Toole is a land-use and transportation policy analyst.  A version of this article originally appeared in his blog, TheAntiplanner.  


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