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Opinion Columns

Opinion: Climate action requires smart growth, not Lakewood’s plan

On Sunday, Dr. Gary Wockner published an opinion piece in this publication claiming Lakewood’s recent “Slow Growth” ordinance — capping residential development to 1% and requiring council approval for 40+ unit developments — is not only a smart move to tackle the explosion of growth but also an effective climate action plan.

He’s simply wrong on both points. 

In reality, the Lakewood plan and the similar statewide ballot initiative will exacerbate our affordable housing crisis and hamper real efforts to tackle climate change.

Morgan Smith

“Slow Growth” ordinances are a quick-and-easy way to create more expensive housing. While housing prices are complicated to model out, especially since we all look for more things in a neighborhood than just cheap housing, it does seem to be good “back-of-the-envelope math” that keeping the supply of housing basically the same while demand shoots through the roof will increase the price of housing. 

This is problematic for those who want to enter the housing ladder and create wealth. It only exacerbates the inequality we should seek to alleviate.

Ironically in Colorado, it also endangers taxpayer funding for schools, public services, and other important amenities. The current state constitution requires residential property tax revenue to be a certain percentage of all property revenue; if housing prices increase, the tax rate must fall to keep that bucket of revenue the same size.

Local firefighters and school districts suffer. We need to build more housing and incentivize middle-market or workforce housing to address this crisis, not cap the number of units that can be built.

Dr. Wockner is also convinced that “Slow Growth” ordinances are an effective climate action plan.

He correctly points out that population growth drives human and economic activity, like construction or agriculture or transportation, that cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

Here’s the reality. We do not live in a decarbonized or carbon-neutral society. Nearly all human and economic activities today create GHG emissions.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

However, the two areas where we seem to have opportunity thanks to innovations in technology are energy and transportation.

Clean energy and renewables are quickly becoming the cost-effective option for energy generation, besting coal and fossil fuels.

Transportation is a bit slower to the punch, but electric vehicles (EVs) and electric or carbon-neutral public transportation options are also emerging as cost-effective options.

It seems reasonable to me that we should do everything in our power to deploy these options to reduce GHG emissions.

But, unfortunately, we can’t do that without residents. For cities with municipally-run utilities like Colorado Springs or Longmont, those cities need residents to pay fees. Xcel Energy, in other cities that contract them for energy utilities, needs paying customers. We need residents and tourists to fund the FasTracks initiative by spending money. We need a healthy economy to generate enough revenue to fund the deployment of the very things we can use to reduce GHG emissions.

The obvious counter is that current residents can and already do pay for these services.

But the real cost of decarbonizing energy infrastructure and building out additional carbon-neutral public transportation is, well, pretty expensive.

Given our historic animus in this state to tax increases — we literally failed to spend half-a-penny more per Chipotle bowl on basic road improvements — it seems a better strategy to increase the volume of people paying taxes and fees instead of taxes themselves.

While Dr. Wockner is right that concrete and other construction are GHG-intensive, building denser residential and mixed-use developments can encourage people to stop using other sources of GHG emissions, namely cars.

Creating denser neighborhoods where services and commerce — whether it’s health care clinics, grocery stores or jobs — are available at a walkable or bikeable distance will reduce GHG emissions.

The goal of density is not to eliminate the use of cars, but to decrease the frequency of use. Especially in Colorado, where we cherish getting outdoors, almost everyone has a car.

Let’s build cities where you don’t have to hop into one every time you forgot to buy milk.

The final crux of the argument, however, has to do with how we manage growth. Dr. Wockner reasons that “if you have less human consumers, you will have less population-caused GHG emissions.”

Factually, true. But the sentence that follows — “by slowing population growth, Lakewood will slow its GHG emissions” — doesn’t say anything about having less human consumers.

A residential development cap doesn’t eliminate people. It only displaces them to other communities.

If Dr. Wockner was serious about tackling the climate crisis, he would recognize that our atmosphere doesn’t care about municipal boundaries. It only cares about total emissions.

Morgan Smith is a delegate of the Youth Congress for Sustainable Americas and a graduate of the University of Denver in Economics and Public Policy.