Pruning the Plan

When no-growth sentiment threatened to choke prosperity, Fort Collins, Colorado, replaced a home-grown hybrid.


"I want to stop growth cold in its tracks and then send every city councilman to live in Los Angeles," declares Tom McKenna, an activist in Fort Collins, Colorado. A fiery man in his mid-50s with a chestnut-red complexion and small, piercing eyes, McKenna has lived in Fort Collins for 18 years. He seems to have been fiercely unhappy about the city's growth for at least 15 of these.

McKenna has an idiosyncratic view of property rights. "The only right that the property owner of a vacant lot has is to continue the use as a vacant lot," he argues. After a pause, he continues in a more generous vein: "He can put up a home similar to mine."

McKenna is not just a slow-growther upset by an increase in traffic. He is very serious about being opposed to all growth, whether in Fort Collins, the United States, or the Third World. Growth brings people, and McKenna doesn't like that. "Americans shouldn't have more than two children. If somebody produces 10 children, that's outrageous. And three, he should have social censure."

McKenna is not alone. There are people like him involved in growth-control organizations throughout the country, and their numbers and influence are increasing. The slow-growth movement, though almost entirely a white, middle- or upper-class phenomenon, has brought together some strange bedfellows. Leftist greens fight alongside communitarian conservatives, population-control zealots, two-car suburbanites, and closet racists.

They all have different agendas: The greens want to conserve resources, get people out of cars and onto bikes. The communitarians dislike modernity and commercialization; they long for a simpler time when people tilled the soil of their own land. The population controllers don't want to see any more people. Anywhere. The suburbanites are upset about urban sprawl and traffic congestion. And the covert and overt racists want to keep low-income housing and minorities out of their towns. Although their motivations are different, their solution is the same: Stop or limit growth, regardless of the economic consequences.

Many cities have responded to growth pressures and slow-growth movements by adopting stifling land-use regulations. In California, for example, voters have approved 70 out of 76 local growth-control initiatives proposed during the last two and a half years. In 1986 San Francisco residents passed an ordinance that allows only 475,000 square feet of office space (one or two buildings) to be built each year. Numerous growth-control measures have been passed in the Los Angeles area as well. "A decade ago," planning consultant William Fulton relates in Governing magazine, "virtually no one in the Southern California megalopolis lived under growth restrictions. Now most people in the region accept them as a way of life."

But in McKenna's town, Fort Collins, the city planners took a different approach. They abandoned Euclidean zoning in favor of a land-use system that allows the market to work. Instead of strictly segregating uses, the Land Development Guidance System aims to control the negative effects of growth. No use is automatically ruled out because it fails to conform with someone's preconceived idea of what the city should look like in two decades.

The LDGS is certainly not laissez faire. But it is a step toward recognizing the role of property owners in determining the use of their own land. Although zoning is not going to disappear anytime soon, the Fort Collins system is beginning to inspire communities to take a more flexible approach to land use. Despite the success of the LDGS, however, it faces opposition from those, like McKenna, who would like greater political control.

The home of Colorado State University, Fort Collins is located at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, about an hour's drive north of Denver. A city of a little more than 90,000, it seems much smaller. Five miles from the shopping centers, fast-food restaurants, and small office buildings of the city, you can see cows grazing.

Like many Western cities and towns during the oil-boom years, Fort Collins experienced rapid growth in the 1970s. The sleepy college town ballooned from a population of 43,337 in 1970 to 70,000 a decade later. Along with increased prosperity and opportunities, the city experienced some of the side effects that growth can bring—increases in crime, traffic congestion, and air pollution, as well as development that longtime residents considered slipshod.

By the late '70s, many residents were frustrated by the changes and fearful of what the future would bring. In 1979 these tensions came to a head when McKenna led a fight to pass a controversial city growth-control ordinance that would have placed a moratorium on new building permits. The proposal created a panic among local merchants and business leaders, whose livelihoods depended on the city's continued growth and prosperity. They fought back, and the initiative was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin.

Former Mayor Chuck Mabry, at the time a young city planner, says the ordinance's defeat sent a message to the city council and the planning staff that "the community was not interested in limiting the quantity of growth but was interested in managing the quality of growth." The planning staff, a young group of seven who were enthusiastic and open to new ideas, set out to devise a land-use system that would meet the wishes of the community.

Such a mission conjures up images of city planners dictating everything from the flooring of one's basement to the color of one's roof. But heavy-handed government regulation was not what the planning staff had in mind.

The planners would base the new system on a few basic principles: First, any land use can be made compatible with any other use through good design and buffering. They believed that the philosophy of conventional zoning, which holds that different uses should be completely separated from each other, is fundamentally flawed. Indeed, mixed use is good for a community.

Second, land-use regulations needed to be changed to support private decisionmaking. Third, the city should clearly identify its overall goals but let the private sector determine how to meet those goals. Fourth, landscape architecture should be incorporated into the land-use process through a system of incentives. Finally, rejecting the "planner's fatal conceit," the city recognized that consumers can determine land uses better than the government.

Joe Frank, a planner at the time and now assistant planning director, recalls that "just about everybody was ready to drop zoning." The citizens were dissatisfied because it had failed to produce quality development or protect the environment. Developers were angry because the zoning process was very political and the constant delays associated with rezonings cost them a lot of money. The planning staff viewed Euclidean zoning as restrictive, arbitrary, and illogical. It was plain that the Fort Collins zoning map, drawn in 1929 and updated in the 1960s, did not fit the needs of a city of 90,000 with a large demand for multifamily dwellings.

So the planners designed the Land Development Guidance System, based on a point scheme that permits developers to propose any land use on any parcel of property. Under the LDGS, a developer must meet 46 "absolute impact criteria," which cover effects such as traffic congestion, noise, and shadows. The developer must also meet most of 65 "performance criteria," which include factors such as pedestrian convenience and access to public transportation. The city assigns different multipliers to the developer's score on each criterion depending on the nature of the project and its location. Developers can meet the criteria in whatever way best suits their plans and their customers' needs.

Traces of the planner's conceit remain. The performance and impact criteria and the multipliers attached to them are based on a set of "community goals and aspirations" defined by the government. While many of the LDGS criteria deal with negative effects such as pollution and increases in traffic congestion, some have to do with things that the planners would like to promote, such as attractive landscaping. The system tends to blur the distinction between protecting residents from costs imposed by developers and providing residents with benefits at the expense of developers—a practice that opens the door to a potentially endless list of demands.

Still, although the city's emphasis on aesthetics can be intrusive, developers prefer the LDGS to the old zoning system. The system is predictable, far more so than politicized zoning. And by stressing quality of design, the LDGS has softened no-growth sentiments. Developers consider compliance with the new criteria an acceptable tradeoff for the increased flexibility and control they now have.

Planning Director Tom Peterson, who moved to Fort Collins from Anchorage, Alaska, four years ago, is a veteran of no-growth battles—particularly during a tour of duty as a planning director in New Jersey. "Over the last 50 years, the planning profession has become very regulatory," Peterson notes. "There is a big difference in what Fort Collins is doing. We're taking a giant step towards recognizing the efficacy of the market."

Although Peterson wasn't around at the conception of the LDGS, he has quickly become one of its most dynamic spokesmen, traveling around the country to talk to fellow planners. Fort Collins has received requests from thousands of cities for details about the LDGS. Even government officials from Norway, including the mayor of Oslo, have journeyed to Fort Collins to see how the LDGS has performed.

The system's record is impressive. Since the LDGS was instituted, the city has not been involved in any land-use lawsuits. There have been only 30 appeals to the city council in close to 10 years. Property-tax rates have remained low and were even cut last year. The time involved in reviewing development applications has decreased from 7–9 months to 7–14 weeks. Administrative review can cut the wait down to three weeks for developments whose general parameters were set in earlier master plans.

After a couple days in town I became adept at distinguishing the pre- and post-LDGS buildings. The houses and offices built under the LDGS fit in much better with the environment around them; they are better landscaped, more attractive, and built of superior material. The office buildings look like residences; multifamily dwellings are tucked in among trees or interspersed with large expanses of open space; and the gas stations and convenience stores are made of solid brick.

The city planners attribute this improvement in the quality of architectural design to their prodding. Certainly the streamlining of land-use approval has enabled architects and developers to pay more attention to details that appeal to passers-by. In any case, once the LDGS had been in place for a time, developers began coming in with better designs on their own initiative. Now building and landscape designers are competing to serve developers, who are competing for buyers and tenants by making their projects more attractive.

More important, Fort Collins has proved that mixed use can work. One would be hard pressed to find a section of the city developed post-LDGS in which residents are not living within walking distance of retail outlets, offices, and parks or playgrounds. With neighborhood shopping centers scattered throughout the city, children can walk or bike to the store. In modern suburbia, where houses and commercial districts are separated by considerable distances, this step up the ladder of adolescent maturity is often impossible.

Mixed use is important for several reasons. Prohibiting a mix of commercial and residential uses can contribute to sterile, lifeless downtown areas and leave bedroom communities vacant during the day. By contrast, greater activity around the clock discourages crime and makes neighborhoods more hospitable. Furthermore, "if you prevent mixed use, it places a wedge between activities that may want to be nearer to each other. This can create travel problems," says Peter Gordon, associate dean of the University of Southern California School of Urban and Regional Planning. Increasing mixed use opens up more opportunities for people to live, work, and shop in the same vicinity. This decreases traffic congestion, thereby reducing vehicle emissions, the major source of air pollution in many urban areas.

The Oak Ridge Business and Residential Parks, at the more rural, southern end of Fort Collins, is a good example of the mixed use one finds throughout the city. A brand-new, luxury-home community is located a short walk from shimmering office buildings. A greenbelt that abuts nearly half of the development's lots will serve as a buffer to separate the areas when the development is finished. A bike ride away is the new Hewlett-Packard plant, set back a few hundred feet from the street and looking rather isolated amid acres of farmland. Many Hewlett-Packard employees regularly bike to work from Oak Ridge.

A few miles north, the Woodward-Governor plant—a factory that makes governors for motors—lies adjacent to apartment buildings and in front of single-family residential housing. The factory is barely noticeable from the street, thanks to elaborate landscaping on the plant's grounds, including lush vegetation and a stream that winds moat-like around the factory. Across the street from Woodward-Governor and buffered by a large lake lies Parkwood, one of Fort Collins's most exclusive residential communities.

In addition to promoting mixed use, the LDGS meets housing needs better than conventional zoning does because it lets developers respond to demand. A couple of years ago, there was a big demand for high-density housing, so multifamily dwellings sprang up all over town. Now the demand is moving toward large luxury houses, so that's what the developers are building. The city's housing options range from trailer parks and inexpensive apartments to $700,000-and-up estate homes. Because of the variety of housing in the city, all sorts of people live here—ranging from leather-skinned, Marlboro-man types to upscale yuppies from California and the East.

Although the initial success of the LDGS mollified the no-growth forces in Fort Collins for a few years, the movement has re-formed and added to its ranks. McKenna is once again feverishly dispatching letters to the local newspaper, vilifying "greedy developers," real estate brokers, bankers, and the city council for generating population growth. Although Fort Collins's growth has slowed to a few percentage points a year, the slow-growthers appear stronger than ever, and one of their main targets is the Land Development Guidance System.

The antigrowth movement is fed by neighborhood protests against specific projects. Increasingly, the citizen groups are demanding step-by-step involvement in individual land-use decisions. Among the more sophisticated of the neighborhood groups is the Prospect-Shields Association, which has been involved in at least one development controversy a year. It's said that if an architect with a map is seen anywhere near the neighborhood, members of the group are immediately on the phone to city hall to complain. These residents miss what they remember as the security and predictability of zoning.

"The LDGS places too much faith in the market system to determine what developments should take place and where," writes Hal Worth in the Prospect-Shields Association's evaluation of the LDGS. "Vacancy rates in multi-unit housing, office buildings, and shopping centers are at an all-time high. And even in the face of these grossly negative economic signals, approvals for further development of like kind continue apace under the laissez-faire climate of the LDGS." The report concludes: "Obviously, at some point in time such unbridled entrepreneurial initiative ceases to be in the public interest."

For growth-control advocates like Worth, the bad investments of some developers are evidence of the market's failure. The city's planners argue that the surplus of space is merely a market fluctuation. They figure it's not their job to make developers' business decisions. The office space will fill up, they say: It just takes a little patience. "We have trust in the market," says Joe Frank, the assistant planning director. "It takes faith in the market, and we have seen that the market takes care of itself. It has worked in these last 10 years."

If nothing else, the market is good at rewarding those who respond appropriately to demand and punishing those who don't. The notion that government can serve this role more effectively has been discredited throughout the communist world, yet it still holds sway within the antigrowth movement.

Not surprisingly, those who do not trust voluntary transactions to coordinate supply and demand do not trust them to locate developments, either. Some residents of Fort Collins simply dislike the idea of mixed use, regardless of how it looks. The notion that any two uses can be made compatible through design and buffering scares them—they picture a glue factory in the vacant field across the street.

The city's decision to abandon rigid separation of land uses has indeed had unforeseen consequences for some residents. Art Judson, a retired National Forest Service glaciologist, became involved in the slow-growth movement when a developer decided to build an enormous discount store called Pace Wherehouse on vacant land near his home.

Pace was originally supposed to go up on the southern end of College Avenue, the city's main drag. But neighborhood opposition—motivated, in part, by the site's location on wetlands—convinced the developer to relocate the building to a more rural location a half mile away. The move stirred up another hornet's nest among residents near the new site. The developer ultimately built the place after buying off some of the protesting neighborhood associations, but many opponents remained unhappy, including Judson.

Next to Judson's ranch house is a wide, relatively unspoiled expanse. Set against the backdrop of Pikes Peak, the prairie is broken up by a running stream with a quaint wooden bridge. Across the street, about two football fields away from Judson's house and looking quite the neighborhood bully, stands the massive Pace Wherehouse.

Escorted by Judson's wife into the living room, I am once again treated to an unimpeded, breathtaking view of the Rockies. Judson is a handsome man in his mid-60s who could pass for 10 years younger. His face is tanned and marked by deep lines, the result of decades of outdoor work in the unforgiving Western sun.

It is impossible not to empathize with Judson. He doesn't come across as a misanthrope, a radical environmentalist, or a racist. He moved West from upstate New York 45 years ago to escape the bumper-to-bumper traffic, frenzied lifestyle, and dense populations of the East. Now he is a true Westerner. "In the West, space is a way of life," he says. He repeatedly laments the loss of the frontier—the dearth of "places in America where you can have quiet, space, and peace."

Judson would love to see growth come to an abrupt halt, but he is pragmatic. "I don't think that there is much of a case for having no growth at all, but there's also not much of a case for unbridled growth," he says. Judson wants the city to protect his magnificent view—a reasonable request, he figures, from a taxpaying, law-abiding resident of 42 years. The problem is that neither Judson nor the city owns the empty fields surrounding his house. He has enjoyed all this beautiful land free of charge for all these years, and he's not about to pay for the privilege now.

Judson says the city should be doing more to ensure the preservation of neighborhoods. Yet private arrangements can do a pretty good job of this without zoning. My conversation with Judson is interrupted when Hal Swope, president of the neighborhood homeowners' association, drops by with a contract for Judson to sign. The document, a private land-use covenant signed by all 93 property owners in the neighborhood, is up for renewal.

It turns out that most people in Fort Collins are protected by some form of private covenant. These contracts forbid land uses that the parties to the agreement consider undesirable; they may also set standards for home and grounds maintenance. A local real estate broker reports that all the new developments in Fort Collins incorporate such contracts. By requiring home buyers to sign restrictive covenants as a condition of purchase, developers protect the neighborhood's property values and reduce the risks of investing in a home.

But many people feel these legal, voluntary restrictions are not enough. They want the extra protection afforded by zoning. After all, Judson reasons, the neighborhood covenant didn't prevent Pace Wherehouse from going up. I ask Swope whether the homeowners' association had ever considered purchasing the land or the development rights to the property. He laughs. The association, he says, has enough trouble getting its members to pay their $25 annual dues.

Judson's neighbor across the street is a member of Citizen Planners, an upstart activist group. Formed as a result of the Pace Wherehouse controversy, the organization has emerged as a major force in city growth battles. All but one of the six members I met with seemed to be in their 30s or early 40s, and most had not lived in Fort Collins very long. Environmentally "aware," they belong to organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.

Ward Luthi, the chief spokesman for Citizen Planners, is a thin wilderness guide in his 30s with a mop of disheveled, frizzy hair. He talks of making Fort Collins energy self-sufficient, of reducing the use of fossil fuels, and of the "need for people to change their basic way of living." To Luthi, growth means traffic congestion, air pollution, and environmental degradation.

In the course of an hour, Luthi and his committed band of growth-control environmentalists present a confused philosophy riddled by contradictions. One moment they are blasting Fort Collins Inc., an organization funded by local businessmen to promote the city, for attracting industry—and with it, people and pollution—to Fort Collins. In the next breath, they complain that there aren't enough good jobs in the city. They want to get people out of their cars yet are against mixed use. They complain about industrial water pollution yet scoff at strengthening private water rights—because, Luthi says, "no one owns the water. No one owns the land. We are all just custodians."

More to the point, proposals aimed at mitigating the negative effects of development undermine the basic premise of the antigrowth movement: that growth per se is bad. "Show me a place with high population growth, and I'll show you a place that is struggling and failing to even maintain the existing quality of life," says McKenna, Luthi's chief competitor for growth-control king of Fort Collins.

Luthi cites the work of Amory Lovins and his staff at the Rocky Mountain Institute, which argues that growth eventually ravages a community. "Human growth after maturity is cancer," writes Michael Kinsley, the institute's vice president (no relation to the "Crossfire" host). "When a town continues to grow after maturity, its cancer is manifest in the many ways we see and feel our community deteriorating."

Not everyone buys this theory. "The no-growthers are coming from a false premise—that there can be zero growth," says Mabry, the former mayor. "There is no such thing as zero population growth—no keeping it the same.…I've seen too many communities experience population loss. Go to eastern Colorado and talk to them about the advantages of growth versus no growth."

And, in fact, Fort Collins isn't growing all that fast. Its growth spurt actually took place more than a decade ago. While the city's population is increasing at a modest 2 percent to 3 percent a year today, in 1976 Fort Collins had the fourth highest growth rate among the nation's metropolitan areas.

The city now has the Lincoln Center, which attracts performers whom residents 20 years ago would never have dreamed of seeing in Fort Collins. Local businessmen no longer have to drive more than an hour to Denver to buy a nice tie. And even the no-growthers concede that the quality of development has increased substantially since the LDGS was adopted.

Despite all this, the chorus of growth-control voices continues. "The no-growthers would like more control than is realistic in a democracy," says Frank Vaught, the architect for Pace Wherehouse. He talks about "vigilante-type neighborhood opposition" and describes one neighborhood meeting where off-duty police officers were needed to maintain order.

Although the Fort Collins Land Development Guidance System hasn't pleased everyone, it has provided a way of addressing the legitimate concerns of those who have qualms about growth.

And so far the LDGS has stood up fairly well to these political pressures. But its purity and objectivity are in danger of being undermined. The heat is beginning to take its toll on the people who oversee the system. "The planning board is moving more in the direction of policy, and there is a tendency to look at regulations," acknowledges Peterson, the planning director. If the planning staff continues to flirt with command-and-control regulations to appease the vocal no-growthers, the LDGS may become less a guide to development and more an iron rule.

As F.A. Hayek observed: "If man is to do no more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that…where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as a craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, as the gardener does for his plants."

With the LDGS, Fort Collins's planners have provided the environment. The best thing they can do for the city now is to sit back, put their feet up, and continue to let the marketplace do the planning.

William D. Eggers, a former Reason Foundation research fellow, is a research associate at the Heritage Foundation.