“Boulder isn’t just for the rich”

January 27, 2007

The Daily Camera featured an article today about a physicist complaining about “McMansions” in Boulder, called “scrape-offs,” that fill an entire lot. This has been a phenomenon nationwide. I first heard about it last year. A resident of a city (can’t remember where) was campaigning to outlaw building these types of houses in her town. It made the national news. Due to current real estate tastes, people want large houses. They’re trying to “keep up with the Joneses.” I’m not sure what effect this has on the value of surrounding, smaller houses. It may make the land value go up, in fact, because the value of the “McMansion” that’s put in its place will be so much higher than the smaller house that’s already there.

One can hardly blame ambitious people wanting to do this in a town like Boulder, with its increasing land values. Boulder has already shown itself to be an immensely profitable place to own real estate.

I suppose the larger houses tend to attract a more upscale clientelle when a house in the neighborhood goes up for sale, who also want a house as large as the biggest one on the block, or larger. People complain that it changes the character of the neighborhood. I can imagine.

The physicist, Jim Faller, sounds like someone with a lot of time on his hands though. The article quotes him as saying, “My house is ruined.” And then goes on to say:

He said he feels the sentimental value of his house and neighborhood will only be lowered as more surrounding houses are razed. His house, though, has increased in value to about $800,000 to $1 million since he bought it in 1971 for $60,000, he said.

Ruined? Hardly. Maybe the sentimental feel of the place is ruined, but certainly not its value–a $740,000-$940,000 profit is not shabby at all. If that’s ruination I wonder what he’d consider “adequate.”

One thing Faller said that I couldn’t let pass without comment is, “Boulder isn’t just for the rich.” Au contraire. In case he hasn’t noticed, due to Boulder’s restrictive land use policies (ie. building the Green Belt to prevent sprawl), Boulder is just for the rich–unless you don’t mind living in a trailer park. We have a few of those here. I guess he didn’t notice that many of the common folk left a while ago and that he’s likely in the minority. I’m not saying this is the way it should be. It’s the result of choices that Boulder has made over the course of a few decades in the name of preserving the natural beauty. There are other towns in the West that did the same thing, with similar results. Check out the real estate values of homes near Jackson in Wyoming, just south of Grand Teton National Park. You can scarcely find a home that’s worth less than $1 million.

Every choice has benefits and costs. The question should be whether the benefits outweigh the costs, not what will solve all of our problems. There’s rarely a solution that doesn’t come with costs.

Apparently Boulder is quite satisfied with the current state of affairs:

Susan Richstone, acting long-range division manager for the city’s planning department, said the Planning Board has urged the City Council to take up the issue of scrape-offs, but it hasn’t because of a lack of public concern.

Uh huh. I bet.


Is Boulder finally getting on the ball?

July 10, 2006

I read today in the Daily Camera that the City of Boulder is considering offering incentives to businesses to get them to stay here. The article cited a few businesses that have left town in recent years: Leopard Communications, Noodles & Co., GE Access, etc. Many of these businesses were founded right here in Boulder, but they no longer call it home. It also cites businesses who have moved in to Boulder, or will be in the near future.

This talk of incentives is encouraging. I’m sure there are many in Boulder who don’t like the idea. They want business to “pay its own way”, paying for the external development needs that are needed to support their business, and the community that surrounds them. As much as that would be ideal, the facts are it’s just cheaper to operate elsewhere, and if businesses don’t see that the city is trying to “sweeten the deal”, and they see that other cities will, they’re going to move to the more attractive locale. That’s just reality. It’s not fair, but what is in this world? Fairness is something that we can strive for, but let’s not let some abstract notion of fairness be the enemy of the greater good. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing either, just a compromise. The article is right that there are amenities in Boulder that can’t be found in other parts of the state. It can use that uniqueness to its advantage. Boulder may not feel comfortable offering all the incentives that other cities do (I’m not saying it has to implement them all), but it needs to recognize it needs a good tax base as well in order to fund its operations. If people can live and work here, they’re more likely to shop here–that is, if they can find what they’re shopping for–increasing the city’s sales tax revenue.

Boulder can only do so much, because it has effectively constrained its own growth, due to the green belts that surround the city. Even if it were to offer irresistable incentives, Boulder would not experience the same kind of economic growth that surrounding cities have been experiencing over the past year. There just isn’t enough land for everybody, unless by some miracle Boulder were to suddenly moderate its fear of sprawl. The planned “transit center” may be what’s ultimately needed to really grow the economy here, since it could create a multiplier effect–bringing in more consumers from outside the city.

I look forward to seeing what the City will offer, and see what effect it has on stemming the “exodus” of business.


The City proposes an Energy Use Tax

June 10, 2006

I just read today that the Boulder City Council approved putting a measure on the ballot in November to levy an energy use tax on homeowners and businesses. The tax will be based on how much electricity they use. Anyone buying wind power will not pay tax on that portion of their bill.

They estimated that if the use tax is approved by voters, homeowners will be charged $12 a year and the typical business $53 a year. The money will be used to promote energy efficiency to Boulder’s residents and it will funnel money into various energy efficiency programs, such as renewable energy sources and public transportation. They anticipated they will also be able to refund the tax to low-income people.

This all sounds fine and good. It’s a “do-good” kind of measure, though I think economics is already communicating to people that they need to be energy-efficient. If you aren’t, you’re energy bills go through the roof. That’s a pretty clear communication, and people respond to it by finding technologies that are more efficient. This will give them what they want more cheaply in energy costs, and energy will be saved by default.

The fly in the ointment for me is this is part of a climate action plan the City Council also approved that sets the policy of Boulder on a course for meeting the Kyoto Treaty protocol. According to the referenced article in the Daily Camera, this will mean reducing carbon emissions by 24%. One can only guess what they have up their sleeves next. A municipal gas tax, perhaps? If they want to go after carbon emissions that would be a prime energy source to go after.

Though this tax measure targets energy efficiency, which is good in and of itself, I am concerned that their underlying motivation is to not only follow a protocol which has come into disrepute even in countries that signed on to it, but to reduce emmissions, because of their perception that climate change is being caused by industrial activity. Reducing emmissions for the sake of reducing particulate pollution is a noble goal when it comes to increasing human health and quality of life. I disagree with the notion that industrial activity is causing global warming, only because I have not been convinced.

Does the emperor have clothes?

I’ve seen climate scientists who are adherents to the idea of industrial-caused climate change attempt to show that humans are “forcing” (that’s the term used) this change. I’ve looked for a reason to believe them, but I have remained unconvinced. The problem with the notion they put forward is they draw connections between things without showing the proof, if they ever had it. They show you glaciers that are melting. They show you the northern ice sheet at the North Pole melting. They show you the snows of Kilimanjaro melting. Then they say, “There’s no question human activity is causing this.” They may be right, for all I know, but they do not show the evidence that A leads to B. They just assume it, by saying that we’re putting tons and tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and carbon dioxide traps heat, therefore we have global warming. It seems like they’re saying “Nothing else we know of could be causing it.” There is a lot in that phrase, because there is plenty about the climate that climate scientists do not know.

For example, just recently I saw a show on Nova which talked about “global dimming”. It was a very good exposition of climate science. What it showed is that particulate pollution is causing sunlight to be reflected back out into space, causing some of the Sun’s radiation to be blocked before it hits the ground or the oceans. They gave a very clear presentation of the data, proof that it’s really happening, and its effects. One of the admissions made in the show was one or two climate scientists saying that this is a new development in climate science, and they had not accounted for it in the climate models–the models predicting the effects of global warming. This new effect is going to have to be incorporated into those models to make them more accurate. This just goes to show that climate science is still young, and it is too early for climate scientists to say definitively what’s going on with the environment and why.

My main concern with people buying into the message of the industrial climate change alarmists is if we as a society were to accept the message as truth and take actions in accordance with it, we could go through a painful process of changing over to low-carbon/no-carbon energy sources in rapid fashion (as the alarmists apparently want us to do), basically on an assumption, end up hurting our economy severely because of it, and come to discover years later that industrial influence was negligible in climate change; that in actuality the climate was just changing on its own, and we were just bit players in it, a mere speck. And in the meantime science will have been discredited as having fooled people into believing something that wasn’t true.

I like science. I want it to have credibility. Climate scientists need to do better in presenting their evidence. That much is clear to me. The scientific method must be observed with reverence, not as a relic of the past. Right now it seems as though the alarmists are taking advantage of media hysteria of the subject. This does not serve science. It serves the egos and fears of certain people in this community and their desire to control how society is shaped. Woe be it to scientists who take advantage of the good name of science to advance their own agenda.


Albertsons is leaving

June 8, 2006

According to the Daily Camera Albertsons will soon join a list of retailers who have left town over the last several years. The others I can think of are Sears, JC Penney, and KMart. Boulder was not specifically targeted in these closings. This time it’s no different. Every closing was part of a larger plan by these companies to close down stores that in their judgement were under-performing. The interesting thing is most of these retailers have stores just outside of Boulder. There’s a Sears and a KMart in Longmont.

According to the Daily Camera, the Albertsons store on Iris and the one along 30th St. will be closed in the next couple months. The Albertsons stores in Louisville, Lafayette, Longmont, and Westminster are staying open.

It’s not because these towns have less competition. There are Wal-Marts in Longmont, Lafayette, and Louisville, and they have grocery sections. Talk to any grocer and they’ll tell you that Wal-Mart is definitely competition for them. Sears and KMart also face stiff competition from Wal-Mart, yet they’re still operating in at least one town in Boulder County that has one. Ironically, they’ve all left the one town in the region that does not have a Wal-Mart: Boulder. Truth is stranger than fiction. You’d think all these retailers would be dying to stay here, what with all the talk about how withering Wal-Mart’s competitive tactics are.

So one would suspect that it might have something to do with Boulder’s policies towards these stores, but I think it has more to do with Boulder’s policies towards residential land development. It might be that Boulder has been going through a demographic shift, and the customer base here just wants something different. As a result of Boulder’s land planning, property values have risen. Poor and middle class families have probably been moving out, and more wealthy residents have been moving in. There are a lot of people who commute into Boulder because they can’t afford to live here. Low-cost retailers probably do well in the outlying towns because that’s where more affordable housing is, so their clientele shops there, rather than here.

What I’ve noticed tends to happen with the larger vacant lots that come open as a result of a store leaving, is that another store comes in to take its place fairly quickly. When KMart left its location at Iris and 28th St., a large Safeway moved into that location. Before this, Safeway had been trying for a few years to open up a store in North Boulder, but ran into resistance from citizens. When the opportunity presented itself, they took it. So, I’m optimistic the same thing will happen here. Hey, maybe we’ll get a Wal-Mart after all…Nah!

Also, this should help Boulder’s tax base in the long run. If a store is under-performing, that also means it’s taking up space and is not producing that much tax revenue for the city. It’s better that such stores move out so that stores with a larger clientele can move in and thereby increase tax revenues through sales taxes.