Untangling Boulder’s ‘rich tapestry of regulation’

29 Sep 2016

Where to Start? A Basic Guide to Homeowner Questions

By Charmaine Ortega Getz Next to being able to afford a house, the most challenging issue for homeowners in the city of Boulder may be getting certain basic information from the city and knowing how to act on it. Wondering what zoning district your house is located in? Whether your neighbor can legally block your mountain view with a new addition? Why you have to ask permission to replace the leaky old windows in your historic-district house? Whether your home is really within the city of Boulder or in an unincorporated patch of Boulder County? And what recourse do you have, if any, when facing problems related to these and other questions? The answers are out there—but you have to know where to look and whom to ask. It’s especially difficult if you’re not familiar with, say, the differences between questions of a zoning nature and questions that fall under building codes or land-use restrictions. All of these issues are decided through various boards and commissions appointed by the city of Boulder and approved by the City Council. Decades of dealing with the changing needs and demands of a growing city have resulted in layers of regulation, reflected in the city’s website, a sometimes cumbersome labyrinth that can stymie even a simple search function.
BEFORE: Can your neighbor change your view from beautiful to ugly? (photos courtesy Emily Reynolds)
BEFORE: Can your neighbor change your view from beautiful to ugly? (photos courtesy Emily Reynolds)
AFTER: Can your neighbor change your view from beautiful to ugly? (photos courtesy Emily Reynolds)
AFTER: Can your neighbor change your view from beautiful to ugly? (photos courtesy Emily Reynolds)

Elusive Information

For example (at the time of this writing), if you go to the website to find out what zoning district your house is in, you’ll be met with a pop-up disclaimer of the city’s liability regarding any information to be found on the map. The public must “independently verify” the information, the disclaimer says. But it doesn’t say how. “That needs to be fixed,” acknowledges David Driskell, executive director of Planning, Housing and Sustainability for the city of Boulder. “The maps of the zoning district are very accurate, but information can change at any time, and may not be updated at the time customers are viewing it. We just want people to check with us and contact the Services Center first.” That’s the Planning and Development Services Center, created 15 years ago to help Boulder homeowners with questions about their single-family properties and neighborhoods. The center is far more familiar to developers, contractors, lawyers and architects—those who have to keep up with the latest P&D news and changes—than it is to the general public. “We’ve been hampered by our software in our mission to serve our customers,” Driskell says. “Now a major website revamp is going on, bringing together a multitude of departments.” But according to Driskell, it’s not projected to be complete until late 2017 or early 2018. In the meantime, the Planning and Development Services Center can be contacted through the website or by phone, email or personal visit. All services are free to the public, and no appointment is necessary.

Resources Outside Boulder

Most of Boulder County has no one-stop equivalent to the city of Boulder’s Planning & Development Services Center. Nederland does have a single Web page covering all subjects of a building-codes nature: nederlandco.org/building. It suggests calling Cynthia Bakke at 303-258-3266, ext. 22, with questions about “the building process, location, zoning, fee structure, etc.” For the other cities, towns and unincorporated portions of Boulder County, information on land use, planning and development, building, zoning and historic preservation can be found at www.bouldercounty.org/property/build/pages/lucode.aspx. Scroll down to the very bottom for a link to each community’s website. Good luck!


From questions about the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan —currently under review and due for city council consideration in October—to finding out what rules have changed in your zoning district, there is someone happy to help with “a rich tapestry of regulation,” as Planning Specialist Chris Toebe puts it. Again, you have to know where to look. This center is located on the third floor of the Park Central building at 1739 Broadway, near the corner of Broadway and Arapahoe Avenue. It is generally open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays. It opens at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays following a Monday holiday. Online, the Planning and Development Services Center can be found at bouldercolorado.gov/plan-develop. The phone number is 303-441-1880, and the email address is plandevelop@bouldercolorado.gov.

Unhappy Neighbors

Granted, the center can’t resolve every problem. Longtime Boulder homeowner Emily Reynolds learned—to her dismay—that there was nothing she could do when a neighbor built what the city of Boulder calls an “accessory dwelling unit” smack in front of her cherished view. The ADU even blocks much of her daily sunlight. “It’s so close to our property line that a contractor couldn’t open a folding ladder at one point without crossing [the line],” Reynolds says.


Landmarks & Historic Districts • Is my neighborhood in a historic district? • Does my house have landmark status, or how I can obtain it? • What exterior changes am I allowed to make to my property? Planning , Housing & Sustainability • Can I build THIS? • Can my neighbor build THAT? • How can I get help with this problem? • I don’t understand what it says on the website. • I don’t understand what it says on this notice I got from Planning and Development. Zoning • Which zoning district is my house located in? • Is it located in a floodplain? • Am I living in unincorporated Boulder County? • Can my neighbor really build like THAT?
Former Boulder City Councilmember Macon Cowles, who served from 2007 to 2015, led the city’s effort in 2009 to rein in galloping residential construction in single-family neighborhoods with land-use provisions for “compatible development.” That ran into considerable opposition. “We had a long list of the kind of things being done that neighbors were very unhappy about. We were able to get limits on things like height, volume in proportion to lot size, and proximity to property lines,” says Cowles. “But there is a lot of resistance to being told what else you can do on your own property.” When Cowles and his wife, Regina, bought their current home, they faced land-use restrictions that allowed them to turn a dilapidated garage into a studio, but not much else. “We can’t put in a full bathroom,” Cowles complains, “because of the size of our lot.” On the other hand, they don’t live in one of Boulder’s historic districts, so they could tear down the old structure and start over if they wished. Nor do they live in a neighborhood with fixed parameters and a grandfathered “covenant”—rules that give homeowners more control over changes within the neighborhood than the city generally allows. Despite their current frustrations, the Cowleses went into their real-estate purchase with their eyes open, and knew where to look up the information that even a real-estate agent might not know, or desire to share with potential customers. Other homeowners and potential homeowners might not discover the challenges until too late.
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