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Growth & Change In the West: 2022 RMLUI Conference Recap

April 1, 2022 by admin
Policy/Legislative

2022 Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute Conference Recap

Growth & Change In the West: Can we Adapt Sustainably

by Paul Moberly, AICP PCED, Editor

In March 2020, I apprehensively flew from Salt Lake to Denver to attend the RMLUI conference. The mood there was equally apprehensive, behind a backdrop of a new and fairly unknown virus spreading around the globe. While I immensely enjoyed that conference, the same day of my return to Utah, the Governor declared a state of emergency. Within a handful of days, the world changed and a “new normal” emerged.

Recounting these events to introduce this year’s conference, Susan Daggett, RMLUI Executive Director, talked about some of the positive changes the pandemic brought: we appreciated the social lives of public spaces, adopted en masse ecologically-friendly virtual collaboration, reduced commuting, and reprioritized our lives in positive ways. Now, in addition to continuing the struggles of our old challenges, we must fight emboldened problems like housing affordability, air pollution, and wildfires, while grappling with new paradigms on the nature of work, adjusting to distributed workforces, new transportation shifts, shared economies, and unshared framed realities. Daggett also pointedly said, “The West is the most exciting place to have these conversations.” The RMLUI and Western Planner both stand as a testament to her words.

The Director of the New Urban Mobility Alliance, Harriet Tregoning, served as the keynote speaker, talking on The Great Convergence: A Turning Point for the West in Climate, Transportation, and Affordability. She spoke of the amazing disruptions happening that are changing the ground beneath our feet. She pointed out that for all our talk for a new normal, it logically appears futile to try to rely on some stasis to catch our breath—we must learn to sustainably manage change. These transportation disruptions encompass technological shifts like autonomous driving vehicles, ride-shares, drone deliveries, electric cars and e-scooters, to more behavioral shifts like our recent shifts to work from home, purchase online more, and drive more alone. Climate change also continues, and will continue, to disrupt our world with increasing heat-related issues, wildfires, and drought.

During the pandemic we have reawakened to social disruptions: racial inequities, income disparities, housing access. At the same time, we are in a moment of disruptive funding, largely from ARPA and the still debated infrastructure bill, where billions will be made available for transportation and infrastructure. With these funds, it appears a shift has occurred from decisions made on speed and congestion concerns, to concerns about access, affordability, equity, and our impact on the climate. It remains to be seen if we can manage this changing landscape in motion.

Dr. Arthur C. Nelson, FAICP

I next attended the Planning Ethics of Impact Fee Equity, from three Fellows of AICP and experts on impact fees: Arthur Nelson, FAICP; Mary Kay Peck Delk, FAICP; and Susan Wood, FAICP. They were sharing research from their soon-to-be-released book, Proportionate-Share Impact Fees and Development Mitigation. After covering the revised APA ethics, they discussed that framework relative to common impact fee arrangements, citing a few specific examples to illustrate the complexities which too infrequently are part of assigning those fees. It was not only an enlightening look at how we calculate impact fees, but an illustrative way to process planning-related activities through our ethical framework.

In the plenary session, Pre-Pandemic Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World: Transit Systems and Complete Streets, Dr. Arthur C. Nelson, presented his data-driven research on whether transit stations of differing types, as well as complete streets, economically impact their surrounding areas. Whenever I listen to Dr. Nelson present, it feels like a reality-check; this was no different. He first dispelled some misguided theories on the impacts of the pandemic: offices aren’t dead, cities still draw people, and many can’t work from home. Transit ridership is at about half of what it was in March 2020 although still increasing. As one might suspect, the spatial correlation between transit stations and office and residential units depended much on the type of station and other place-specific contexts. While the devil is in the details, transit stations and complete streets do have a disproportionate impact on the values, population, and job growth in the areas around them. While Dr. Nelson carefully clarified that correlation does not equate to causation, it was fascinating to measure “good” and “bad” transit stations in an economically quantifiable way—particularly stations and systems with which I was familiar.

Aftermath of the Marshall Fire, in Boulder County, Colorado

Next, I attended Hindsight is 20/20: Zoning Changes We Should have Made Before the Wildfires, with Molly Mowery, AICP from the Community Wildfire Planning Center; Ben Yellin, a Wildland Fire Captain who also has a Master’s in Planning; Karen Hughes, AICP from Missoula County, Montana, and Don Elliott, FAICP from Clarion Associates. Much of the session brought up issues seen in the recent Marshall Fire, where 1000 homes were burned in 6 hours. The session also brought up the context of our discussion on wildfires—many times over the years, reports, guides, strategies on preventing wildfires have been created and ignored. What was particularly fascinating however, was having a firefighter explain their methodology and allocation of resources when fighting a blaze. They examine slope, densities, access and escape routes and the safety of those routes. They are highly strategic with deployment of their resources, not overcommitting on any single home—if it’s in a wildfire situation, once a home is burning, it’s burnt. This highlighted repeatedly that prevention is paramount when it comes to protecting developing along the wildland-urban interface.

The next session I attended was, Not in My Backyard: Rising Opposition to Multifamily in the Western United States. With much of the West in an affordable housing crisis, this panel of developers and city planners talked through case studies of public resistance to major multi-family housing projects. It was interesting to note that each of the projects eventually did come to fruition, but all took significantly longer than normal (2–4x longer) and most in some way were walked back from their original vision. They attributed the increased potency in general resistance to the ability of NIMBYers to spread fear and bad information via social media. When city planners and developers push back and educate with facts and data, that can help; however, sometimes in the end, people won’t be swayed and then it becomes really difficult to proceed—particularly if those people are elected officials.

Finally, I attended Tourists Living Like Locals: How Mountain Communities are Managing Short-Term Rentals. With a mix of macro-trends and approaches and case studies from Estes Park, Larimer County and Steamboat Springs, the presenters painted a complex and difficult situation as towns grapple with direct and indirect impacts of short-term rentals. They were also wise to point out that there are multiple sides to this issue—STRs are beneficial in many ways, yet also cause significant impacts. The most often used actions included: requiring licenses, collecting fees and taxes, allowing only in primary residences, and similarly allowing only in non-primary residences, compliance tracking, occupancy requirements, and having a locally responsible agency or a mandatory response time for issues. Generally, the more aggressive methods were least used and least supported, like bans, caps, restrictive zoning, or other hard restrictions. In the end, the presenters pointed out that short-term rentals are in most communities whether a community wants them or not—it’s better not to bury our heads in the sand and just ban them, because it’s a lost opportunity for revenue and reasonable controls on their use.

The Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute combines such a great balance of planning practice, legal concerns, and academic theory together. While many of the attendees are typically from Colorado, as someone from outside that great state who has attended for the past four years, I can firmly attest to the widely applicable value of the presentations to all of us in the West.

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