Smart growth is the only option that makes sense


Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 3/23/20

Just for a moment or two, I want to divert your attention away from COVID-19 and all the havoc it is wreaking. Certainly, we are experiencing history as it is being made every day in coping with the …

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Smart growth is the only option that makes sense



Just for a moment or two, I want to divert your attention away from COVID-19 and all the havoc it is wreaking. Certainly, we are experiencing history as it is being made every day in coping with the virus.

However, while Westminster’s amount of growth and its consequences pales in the face of the potential impact on humankind and the global economy, it still warrants attention simply because there is still time to do something about it.

First, thanks to all who responded to my March 11th column, “Growing Fast or Growing Smart: Westminster’s Future.” It seemed to spark concern among some of you about Westminster’s future. While I don’t like being negative, it is critical that the truth be known about the remaining developable land and where needed water resources will come from.

The question remains: what do the people want?

Let me make doubly certain that anyone reading my column knows that I am NOT “anti-growth.” At no time have I said or implied that stopping Westminster’s residential growth dead in its tracks would be the prudent thing to do.

I have suggested consistently that the amount of new development be metered or spread over a specified period of time. By metering our growth, the community should decide how much more apartment development it wants as well as single family detached with large turf lots, townhomes and condominiums.

If the city council wants definitive public feedback on the amount and type of new development, it can send out a separate citizen survey. The bi-annual citizen survey, completed a couple of months ago, was too general in the couple of questions asked about growth to gain clarity. While the city staff and consultants continue to work on the various components of updating the Comprehensive Plan, I question whether there will be any measurable change in its outcome.

A foundation built on three principles

A simple, straight-forward smart growth plan borrowing elements from the existing Comprehensive Land Use Plan would be an effective guide. Smart growth requires a diversity of land uses including diverse housing choices.

A smart growth plan would provide clarity for the housing industry. Homebuilders would know how to design developments in Westminster, how diverse to make them, how many to build and when. In the past, the city’s growth management plan annually allowed some new residential development to be added via a competition process using architectural features, subdivision enhancements etc. The highest scoring proposals garnered approval to build additional residential units. In today’s environment, a better approach in any competition would be use a combination of three basic factors — sustainability, mobility and attainability.

Sustainability and mobility

Sustainability would emphasize reduced water demand both inside and outside the dwelling unit. Water conservation would be paramount and address the amount of sod and xeriscape design choices.

Solar could be a factor, as well as the level of insulation. Other relevant factors involving building materials, heating and air-conditioning could apply.

Mobility would, in part, consider the development’s proximity to public transportation i.e. bus routes or close to the B Line train station. Hiker/biker trails and their connectivity would be considered as well.

Attainability would focus on the price range of the various models and available options. Also, rental units would be weighted by whether tax credits are involved in the financing as well as any incentives from the developer. The number of dwelling units for each type of housing allowed each year would be spelled out in advance under a multi-year plan such as a five year or ten year plan.

Certainty is a critical factor for homebuilders and their lenders and such a plan would be helpful.

Metering the amount of residential construction

The key objective of this smart growth plan working with the three basic factors would be to meter the residential growth with an eye to both remaining available developable land and water resources.

We could establish a set number of residential units by each type of housing i.e. single family detached to apartments for a specified number of years i.e. five years. The number allowed in each category would vary depending on the City Council’s priorities such as the “missing middle” home ownership previously mentioned or it could be an emphasis on townhomes or attainable rental apartments or condominiums. The amount of land available and availability of water resources would dictate the level of metering, not the market demand.

Generalized statements don’t hold up

Some elected officials contend that limiting the amount of residential development generated by the market will negatively impact potential retail, office and other commercial development in the same community. Supposedly, these types of developers would be unwilling to invest in Westminster.

However, it depends on the community’s level and depth of maturity. The more mature or developed the community, the less dependent it is on additional residential activity enticing commercial type development. For example, Denver, Longmont, Boulder, Westminster and Broomfield are diverse enough and have sufficient core development in place not to be dependent on continued residential build-out.

On the other hand, communities like Arvada, Erie, Commerce City, Louisville and Thornton are at a stage where additional residential development is more critical to attract retail and other non-residential development.

Fact check

Westminster’s previous growth management plan, which sustained three legal challenges, was adopted roughly in 1976 and served the community well for more than 30 years. It was especially effective in managing Westminster’s water resources.

Certainly during that time, the bulk of the Westminster Mall went forward and was built along with numerous neighborhood retail centers, office parks including the Ball Corporation campus and light industrial facilities. So, the argument that a community must not slow down residential develop or it risks the opportunity of losing more employment and additional tax-generating retail is not universally true. The statement does not hold up against the facts in Westminster.

Stay well and take each day as it comes. Americans will get through this crisis.

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media. You can contact him at


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