Disruption, Innovation and Progress – The 2018 RMLUI Western Places/Western Spaces Land Use Conference

 Rocky Mountain Arsenal Tour at RMLUI Conference

Rocky Mountain Arsenal Tour at RMLUI Conference

by Dan Pava, FAICP, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Once again, I had the privilege to attend the annual Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. The theme explored disruption and how we can plan for an uncertain future full of unknown changes to business practices, new technologies, and disasters. As planners, it is daunting to challenge to plan for the unknown, and yet that’s exactly what we do every day. The nearly 40 panels looked at disruptive influences in housing, transportation, natural resources management, and urban planning, as well as how communities across the West are meeting this challenge.

The two-day gathering began with a Nature Fix. That is to say a talk by Florence Williams, author of “The Nature Fix” who described the science behind the soothing effects of nature whether you are strolling in the neighborhood park, or backpacking in the far-off wilderness. Williams provided many examples of the psychological and physiological benefits provided when people are able to enjoy nature; from horticultural therapy in Denmark to healing forests in Scotland and South Korea, to forest pathways in Japan. She shared the idea of the nature pyramid – a concept that should become familiar to planners. One of the biggest challenges of this century will be making nature accessible in an increasingly urbanized world.

 Governor Hickenlooper and Former Colorado Chief Justice Gregory Hobbs in conversation at RMLUI plenary lunch

Governor Hickenlooper and Former Colorado Chief Justice Gregory Hobbs in conversation at RMLUI plenary lunch

The first-day plenary lunch was graced by a conversation between Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs (retired). The Governor told us that he had been an English major in college, but everything changed in his senior year when he took a course about land use and took six pages of notes. He became active in politics (and craft beer brewing) and hasn’t looked back. He touted the benefits of regional and statewide collaboration in both urban and rural areas, citing the Sage Grouse Task Force which has been disrupted by the Trump Administration by ignoring the importance of collaborative planning. The Governor also said one of the growth challenges is the increasing divide between urban and rural/small town Colorado, concluding that collaboration on the Front Range could address some of the most pressing issues such as transportation, economic development, and jobs.

After digesting lunch and the Governor’s remarks, I headed for “Housing Market Disruptors” (not shown in 3-D) where the ever conversant Professor Arthur Nelson provided numerous detailed charts and graphs demonstrating the many housing trends that planners and policymakers should not be ignoring, such as decreasing home-ownership, increasing multigenerational households, homeowners deferring selling, the coming excess of single-family homes on the market (outside of selected hotspots), and the oversupply of larger suburban lots. Joining Nelson was Erik Kingston, who is the one and only housing planner for the state of Idaho. Kingston said his state, although famous for its potatoes, has a real housing problem and identified the “four horsemen of the housing apocalypse” as poverty, flipping, conversion (to short-term rentals), and commodification. These trends need to be addressed by planners and policymakers in Idaho and other western states if we are to see more housing choices that truly address community needs, he concluded.

My final panel of the day was Federal Lands in the Trump Era. Wilderness Society senior counsel Nada Culver told us that radical changes are occurring that are essentially fostered by the fossil fuel industry’s “energy dominance”  agenda. This is being accomplished by: changes to rules and regulations and policy, changes to the definitions of multiple use, FOIA restrictions, diminished public engagement, shortened permit reviews, reduced agency budgets, and reorganizations.  Strum Law Professor Justin Pidot noted that many lawsuits are being filed to challenge such efforts; while Noah Koerper added that we will see more efforts in the House to modify seminal environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Antiquities Act; that you won’t see companion bills introduced in the Senate. Koerper, who serves as Colorado Senator Michael Bennett’s Regional Director, concluded that there is mounting pressure for some middle ground to allow the federal agencies to carry out their missions, and he admonished planners to work locally, take principled stands on specific issues and supportive of local values.

An excellent reception with delectable appetizers, local beers and wines and the featured signature Rum Louie cocktails rounded out the day; along with great jazz played by talented local high-schoolers, in the law school foyer. It was a perfect opportunity to network and relax after all of the disruption, innovation, and progress of the day!

There’s nothing quite like a refreshing review of takings law to start off your Friday morning just right. In the first panel of the day, “Relevant Parcel Analysis” we learned everything we were afraid to ask about the Supreme Court’s very strange and possibly irrelevant Murr v Wisconsin case. Panelists Brian Connolly, Erin Clark, Justin Pidot, and Don Elliott demonstrated their legal acumen while explaining the nuances of takings case law, and eye-opening topics such as the merger doctrine, and whether subdivision guarantees future development rights.

Later that morning, I chose to attend the session on Post-Disaster Long-Term Recovery – Critical Considerations for Creating Resilient Communities. Western Planner President Angela Parker also attended, and she wrote a summary in her article about her experiences at RMLUI. I agree with Angela’s conclusions and would note that being a proactive community is necessary to being a resilient one. Citing many examples from their experiences, the five panelists emphasized that recovery planning seeks to reconnect the essential physical and social networks that rebuild communities and neighborhoods. Many of the most important local players are the nonprofits and churches and similar organizations. Without harnessing these local networks, the federal disaster aid can actually constrain needed long-term transitions while addressing short-term needs. Redevelopment can happen that does not benefit the vulnerable populations most affected by displacement, such has been the case in parts of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and areas of Colorado hit by the 2013 floods.

 Rocky Mountain Arsenal Tour

Rocky Mountain Arsenal Tour

My choice for Friday afternoon was to get out on a mobile workshop, so I opted to join a dozen other like-minded planners for “Planes, Trains and Bison: Wildlife as a Real Estate Amenity.” There’s nothing quite like visiting a former chemical weapons facility on a warm and windy March afternoon! We bused through downtown traffic over to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, to learn about the arrangement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the City/County of Denver airport authority. The Arsenal Refuge spreads over 25 square miles of restored shortgrass prairie surrounded by the ever-sprawling communities of metropolitan Denver and its international airport. This is a place where you can ride light-rail to hike among a herd of 150 bison and see Black-Footed ferrets and eagles reintroduced to control prairie dogs.  It is a success story of accessible nature – as described a day earlier by our Nature Fix keynote speaker. This is a place where planners have been able to protect an endangered ecosystem from urban engulfment while fostering biodiversity and preventing encroachment around the most important airport in the Rocky Mountain West. This is truly the kind of planning and collaboration needed in many more places around the Western Planner region.

I recommend attending next year’s Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute conference. 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 nearly 40 concurrent panels, three plenaries, two lunches and an evening reception. See you in Denver next March!


Dan Pava, FAICP is president-elect of Western Planner. He has practiced environmental planning primarily in New Mexico, Oregon and California over his 35 year career. Prior to serving on the Sustainable Santa Fe Commission, Pava was on the Planning Commission and the Santa Fe Railyard Development Review Committee.


Published March 2018

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