26th Annual Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute Western Places/Western Spaces Focusing on Creating Inclusive Communities

by Dan Pava, AICP

The 26th annual 2017 Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute was held at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law on March 16-17.  The theme was “Western Places/Western Spaces - Focusing on Creating Inclusive Communities.” RMLUI Director Susan Daggett noted that this theme was selected a year before and is more pertinent now because local land use decision-making typically happens through inclusive civil discourse, transparency, and problem solving – all of which could be emulated at the state and federal levels with positive results.

If you have a limited time and budget and want to earn lots of AICP Certification Maintenance credits but still have a great time, then RMLUI is the venue for you! It is truly impressive what you can learn and who you can network with over two full days with 40 concurrent panels in six tracks, three plenaries, two lunches and an evening reception.

This year, as always, it was a challenge to pick among the topics, but I filled much of my time jumping among several tracks to panels discussing accessory dwellings, federal public lands policy in the new administration, water smart growth, and a panel about diversity challenges in the Colorado city of Aurora.

Things got off to a rousing start with an opening plenary talk Thursday morning by Colorado Senator Michael Bennett who welcomed attendees and contrasted how special interests operate in where confrontation is rewarded over compromise in Congress; while collaboration is necessary to succeed in local government land use decisions. He admonished that divisiveness need not be our destiny and cited examples of successful local planning in Colorado that could be emulated elsewhere locally and regionally whether or not Washington gets on board.

My first session of the morning was “Rising to the Century’s Challenges: Cities as Innovators and Problem Solvers,” moderated by Arthur Nelson of the University of Arizona. Nelson noted that by 2070, the U.S. will be a nation of 450 million including 50 million climate refugees and opined that rust belt cities will be poised to re-emerge and benefit from this shift. This session brought together authors who contributed to the recently published book How Cities Will save the World. Speakers provided examples of innovation and problem solving that are happening in cities addressing climate change resiliency.

Lunch followed with plenary talks moderated by Don Elliott of Clarion Associates. Former APA President Bill Anderson related that by 2065 the global population of 10.4 billion will live mostly in cities that need to be built – the equivalent of eight New York Cities a year over the next 50 years! He summarized the conclusions of the APA working group on planning for these challenges. Economist Andrew Nelson of Colliers gave a prediction about the economy being “mostly sunny with increased cloudiness and a chance of showers” meaning there are challenges ahead including inadequate infrastructure, job polarization, and flat incomes, overbuilt office and retail space and the astounding fact that only half of Americans over 30 years old are making more than their parents. This certainly has planning ramifications. During dessert, moderator Elliott admonished the crowd to consider recommendations from his book “A Better Way to Zone” with his ten tenets for more livable cities.

Bridging the Gap 2016 brought together 500 housing leaders from across the Denver region to plan collaborative action on innovative approaches to housing affordability.

After lunch, I took in the opportunity to attend the panel “Accessory Dwelling Units: Affordable Housing in Plain Sight,” moderated by Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute. The gist of this session was that there is an opportunity to be had in lifting excessive restrictions to create affordable and suitable housing at infill locations in existing neighborhoods. Jesse Adkins AIA served on the Denver Housing Committee that concluded we cannot multifamily our way out of the affordable housing shortage.  Scott Shine followed with a talk about how the resort/university town of Durango, CO was addressing accessory dwelling units through an extensive public process.

The City is conducting a program to inventory and register existing ADUs and Duplexes. Some existing ADUs and Duplexes may have been installed prior to zoning laws and may be legally non-conforming, but many were installed illegally. It is the City's intent to better understand how many of these units exist.

I rounded out the first day at RMLUI with a panel called “Transitioning to a New Administration: Rural Issues.” The speakers discussed the evolution and administration of public lands in the West with emphasis on inclusive planning processes, such as at the BLM, which are models for cooperation rather than litigation. Ideological, legal ordinances to roll back federal controls will ultimately fail in the courts. Federal subsidies to rural areas particularly in the western states have always been necessary and will continue to be needed despite the rhetoric. These communities will be hit hard back canceling and cutting back on federal assistance programs and grants. Ironically, effective and local collaborative planning efforts are threatened by defunding the very agencies that own most of the lands in the west.

The Thursday evening reception is a welcome tradition at the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute Conference, and it provided the opportunity to meet others and enjoy conversation over the fabulous hors d’ouevres while listening to a jazz ensemble. This festive function allowed me to consolidate a days-worth of learning while relaxing with old friends and new acquaintances. Also of note: I was amazed to learn that western Colorado produces some very good dry wines.

On Friday morning, I flowed into a session about “Growing Water Smart: Land Use Solutions.” Here, the focus was on the Colorado Water Plan, and how the state is addressing water supply and demand for Colorado’s growing residential and urban areas. Go to https://www.colorado.gov/cowaterplan to learn more about this. Kevin Reidy of the Colorado Water Conservation Board noted that land use regulations affect water resources in many ways and that modifying landscaping, plumbing and building codes and breaking down regulatory silos is necessary, and that decreasing demand is best done during the planning stage. Drew Beckwith of Western Resource Advocates highlighted a new best-practices manual that is available at www.westernresourceadvocates.org/landuse which offers chapters on good land use processes and techniques to address water supply challenges. The city of Aurora provides a case study in implementing code changes and modifying its tap fees to promote more efficient water use.

There were many interesting panels vying for my attention later Friday morning, but I opted to learn about “A City in Transition: Building the Diverse City of Tomorrow,” which was presented by the City of Aurora. I didn’t know that Colorado’s third largest city was bigger than St. Louis or Pittsburgh, or that its 154 square miles encompassed three counties and four school districts. This minority majority suburban city is transitioning in many ways through proactive planning efforts in 14 renewal districts that aim to raise income levels, improve public health, provide affordable housing, and quality urban environments for its 350,000 inhabitants. Recent comprehensive planning workshops identified Aurora as the “greatest community you’ve never experienced,” while its diversity was its hallmark.

My head being inclusively full of new information, I went to the plenary lunch where the topic “The Brave New World of Connected-Autonomous Vehicles” was on the menu. What was most stimulated my appetite was the comedic presentation by engineer-speaker Larry Head of Arizona State University who told us about the challenges and promise of so-called self-driving cars. Presently, we are at the top of the peak of inflated expectations, and at Level 3.5 on the Society of Automotive Engineers 0 to 5 scale. Level 4 is automated driving that requires huge amounts of information being processed, while Level 5 means the vehicle can “reason” about any environment, anywhere in any conditions. The next game changer will be the vehicle to infrastructure systems connections such as being employed by emergency response vehicles at intersections. The NHTSA issued its Federal Automated Vehicles Policy in September 2016 https://one.nhtsa.gov/nhtsa/av/av-policy.html .There remain safety, privacy and cybersecurity issues to address on the road to an autonomous vehicle future.

There were a dozen more panels to choose from after lunch including some mobile tours, but I took my leave driving my non-autonomous Hyundai Azera southward along the populous Front Range towards the sunset crossing Raton Pass into the Land of Enchantment, enjoying the colorful twilight display over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as I approached Santa Fe.  I very much look forward to the next Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute Conference in Denver, and would highly recommend that you consider attending as well. See you at the reception!

Dan Pava, AICP, is the President-Elect of Western Planning Resources. He is an environmental planner with the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is a past president of Western Planning Resources.

Published in the April 2017 issue of The Western Planner

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