Fort Collins population growth calls for citizen involvement

Sean Kennedy

Sean Kennedy
Sean Kennedy

Our city continues to broaden as new residents come in droves, and our community will be tested by new issues that come with further urbanization. The U.S. Census Bureau has estimated that over the past four years, the population of Fort Collins has grown by over 8 percent, which is part of the 32 percent increase our town has seen since the turn of the century.

Traffic and apartment costs may be the popular boogeymen on campus and around town as the levels of both continue to rise, but these common grievances are indicative of issues that will continue to worsen unless we adapt as a community. There’s no easy solution to address our booming growth, but we need to get involved in city-wide decision making to find a balanced answer to the big-picture question: “Will Fort Collins get bigger, or just more expensive?”

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One positive factor among all the growth along the Front Range is that we are not the only ones dealing with this conundrum, and we can learn from other Colorado cities that have adapted to growth in the past. Boulder is an excellent community to look to in this dilemma, as many parallels can be drawn from their past to the present state of Fort Collins. According to researcher Eben Fodor in “Better Not Bigger,” Boulder was one of the first communities to approve a locally-funded greenbelt system in 1967. Voters approved a .4 percent sales tax to pay for the initiative, which raised $116 million and acquired over 33,000 acres of greenways and mountain lands by 1998. Greenbelt systems, which serve as natural growth boundaries to help to define municipal limits with open space and protect against urban sprawl, should be explored by city residents as a potential way to control Fort Collins’ outward growth. Voters in Larimer County support a similar measure already called Help Preserve Open Spaces, a program that has acquired 33,000 acres of land via a quarter-cent sales and use tax. This program deserves attention as we deal with continued growth around town, as it could be modified to fit voters’ vision for Fort Collins in the future. Expanding the program would be costly in multiple ways, but could increase protection from urban sprawl.

Another idea that should be considered in the debate is instituting building limits as a means to control population growth. The effects of such a policy can be seen in Boulder, which had construction caps as early as 1971, according to Eben, and currently limits growth in its community to 1 percent per year. Such a policy would be one of the simplest ways to control growth within town, but as seen in Boulder, it would also spur a sizable increase in cost of living and competition among builders. Limits to growth would help to ease the burden of expansion on our current infrastructure as we adapt to growth and help protect the identity of our community to a degree, but doing so in an unbalanced manner would open us up to other problems that come with expensive, urbanized living.

Living costs will climb over time with growth around town, but how we as voters choose to affect the situation will greatly impact the rate of increase. According to Truila, the median sales price of homes in Fort Collins has risen over 15 percent in the last year to around $300,000. While it is unrealistic to expect housing prices to continue rising at current rates, our choices and actions as consumers and voters will impact the rate of pricing growth.

Along with increasing home prices, we will have to deal with the effects of poverty that come with becoming an expensive, popular destination for people to live. Poverty in our community has been increasing at a rate greater than in Colorado as a whole, and significantly more than nationally. Since 2000, poverty in Larimer County has increased by 36.5 percent, compared to 26 percent in Colorado and 6.5 percent nationally. Poverty and increased rates of homelessness are correlated with significant growth to a particular area, and this is a matter of public concern that needs to be more effectively addressed moving forward. Little action has been taken other than an anti-panhandling ordinance that was largely stripped by City Council last year after it received legal challenges.

There is no easy answer to addressing growth moving forward in Fort Collins, but we should stay engaged as voters and community members if we wish to adapt while maintaining the identity of our city. If current trends in population growth continue, we can expect to face infrastructural, economic and sociological challenges to our current state of being as a community in coming years. For anyone living in Fort Collins, chances are they have an idea of what they want our community to look like in the future. It’s up to us to see that we find a balanced way to make it happen.

Collegian Columnist Sean Kennedy can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @seanskenn.