Steamboat's hard urban growth boundary gets a fresh look

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— Even as Steamboat Springs has grown, the rural areas of Routt County closest to the city have escaped urban sprawl. And throughout the past 20 years, the hard urban growth boundary wrapping the city has been one of the major reasons why Strawberry Park, the south valley and the Yampa River corridor west of town have retained their bucolic character.

Past Event

Urban growth boundary work session

  • Tuesday, December 10, 2013, 3:30 p.m.
  • Routt County Courthouse, 522 Lincoln Ave., Steamboat Springs
  • Not available

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Now, both city and county governments are revisiting the criteria for expanding Steamboat’s city limits and asking the rhetorical question, “Is it too hard for landowners to win an exception to the hard urban growth boundaries?”

The growth boundary is a centerpiece of the Steamboat Springs Area Community Plan, first adopted mutually by Routt County and the city of Steamboat Springs with the buy-in of residents in 1995. Expansion of the UGB is a precursor to annexation into the city.

The plan includes a process for expanding the boundary, but none of the 11 landowners who have sought an exemption since 2004 has been successful. And with the area community plan now undergoing a belated 10-year review, the requirements are getting a fresh look.

A pair of former county commissioners have said the UGB has played a critical role in protecting the character of the undeveloped areas close to the city of Steamboat Springs.

“The UGB was the most important aspect of the community plan,” former county commissioner and now state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush said in 2011. “It has given us predictability and stability.”

Former commissioner Ben Beall rejects the notion that the criteria for UGB exceptions are too stringent just because no one has been able to successfully adjust the boundary.

“The City Council and the commissioners are looking at the criteria as flawed because there haven’t been any approvals for changes to the UGB,” Beall wrote in a letter to the editor. “Instead, the UGB should be held up as the most successful land-use tool jointly adopted by Steamboat Springs and Routt County. The UGB has helped to manage growth and build the type of community we want.”

City and county planning commissions already have taken a close look at the criteria for exceptions, and the Routt County Board of Commissioners is expected to discuss the matter Tuesday.

Assistant City Planner Rebecca Bessey said this week the two city panels have focused primarily on two of the five UGB criteria that address the question, “Is this parcel suitable for annexation?” and less on other criteria that deal with issues like the community benefit a newly annexed parcel might offer. Members of the City Council and Planning Commission tend to think the issue of community benefit is more appropriate for a full-blown annexation agreement, Bessey said.

County Planning Director Chad Phillips said Tuesday that the Routt County Planning Commission’s interest in criteria that deal with community benefits and affordable housing is precisely because once the process moves on to annexation, the county is out of the process, and there’s no more opportunity for it to address those needs.

The criteria most often used by local government to reject modification of the UGB has been the fact that suitable land for development remains within the existing city limits. That criteria is viewed by its advocates as a way to encourage infill development.

Some developers seeking to expand the boundary in the past have suggested that adherence to that principle has ruled out development of attainable workforce housing because of high land costs within the UGB.

New City Council member Tony Connell represented the developer of a proposed residential development west of the city limits, 360 Village, in 2008 and knows the challenges of going through the UGB process. However, Connell said that while it’s worthwhile taking a fresh look at the UGB criteria this winter, he thinks it unlikely that large housing tracts will seek annexation into the city in the coming decade.

Instead, he thinks it’s more important in the near future to fine tune the process for obtaining UGB adjustments and annexation agreements that might be needed to allow for expansions of public infrastructure, like a wastewater plant, for example.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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