The Danish Plan recalled


Participants in Boulder’s current conversation about growth are starting to allude to the Danish Plan, the growth control ordinance I wrote in 1976 that was adopted by a vote of the people in the November election that year, so I thought I’d provide some background on it — starting with what it said and didn’t say.

First off, the Danish Plan did not, as it has often been wrongly reported over the years, cap growth in Boulder. It was a slow-growth ordinance, not a no-growth ordinance. (In 1971, Boulder’s Chapter of Zero Population Growth proposed a ballot issue that would have capped growth in the city at 100,000. It was fiercely opposed by the business community and defeated in the 1971 city election.) During the first six years of the 1970s, (1970 through 1975) Boulder’s average annual growth rate was 3 percent plus; nearly 6,000 additional units were built during that time.

The Danish Plan limited Boulder’s growth rate to an average of 1 ½ to 2 percent a year by limiting the number of residential housing units (single and multifamily) that could be built in a year in new projects to 450, plus an open-ended number of exemptions. The 450-unit figure represented a 1 ½ percent annual increase in the city’s residential housing inventory at the time. I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that the exemptions would add about another half a percent to the growth rate. The exemptions included 1) a single house on a single lot if the lot existed at the time the ordinance was adopted, 2) a single multi-family structure of four units or less on a single lot if the lot existed at the time the ordinance was adopted, 3) a new subdivision of four units or less, and 4) the projects of the City of Boulder’s housing authority. The exemptions were included to protect the interests of small property owners whose projects would have little impact on growth, but who could suffer serious loss if they got caught up in the system — and to keep the Boulder housing authority’s ability to build low income rental units from being hamstrung. I also thought that the first three exemptions would encourage new development and especially redevelopment on a more human scale — which they did.

There were two other major elements included in the ordinance as well.

The first provided that the 450 permits would be awarded on the basis of merit, under a system to be adopted by the City Council. The council opted for a competitive system that awarded projects points for qualities like the availability of urban services, environmental amenities, energy conservation and so on.

The second provided that 175 of the 450 units would be reserved for central Boulder. For purposes of the ordinance, central Boulder was defined as the area bounded by Baseline, Iris, 34th Street, and the western city limits. The reason for this was that in 1976 it was very hard to get financing to do either restorations or new development in central Boulder. I was afraid that if building permits were limited, all new development would occur on the city’s fringe, encouraging sprawl while effectively red-lining the heart of the city.

The original Danish Plan was not forever. It had a five-year sunset clause in it, which ended it in March 1982. Did it work? Yes it did. The total number of units built during the five-year life of the ordinance worked out to a number equivalent to a 2 percent annual growth rate.

At the end of 1981, the City Council passed a successor slow growth ordinance. (The final vote on it came at the last meeting I attended as a city councilman, if memory serves.) The successor ordinance went through a number of modifications over the years. In 1993, the limit on the number of permits to be given out annually was changed from 2 percent to 1 percent. Awarding permits on the basis of a merit system was also dropped; now, if the number of requests for permits exceeds 1 percent, the year’s allotment of permits will be prorated among the applicants.

The rationing provision has never kicked in, initially because the growth rate didn’t exceed 1 percent. But then in 2000 the City Council wrote some exemptions into the ordinance that effectively gutted it. Among other things, the council exempted all residential construction in certain business zones — like the 28th/30th street area — and on any property rezoned as residential. According to the Livable Boulder website, Boulder’s growth rate in 2014 exceeded not 1 percent but 2 percent — almost all of it due to the exemptions. For Boulderites who have had their fill with the fruits of the current building boom and want to see it reined in, repealing the year 2000 exemptions should be an early action project.

Note: The Danish Plan’s real name was the Slow Growth Ordinance, not to be confused with the similarly-named Slow Growth! Ballot initiative of 1995, which was defeated. Headline writers almost immediately started referring to the ordinance as the Danish Plan and the name stuck.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.