Boulder Wrestles with Mega Houses

When you hear "housing crisis," you probably think foreclosures, people unable to pay their mortgages, that sort of thing. In Boulder County, Colo., though, "housing crisis" means something else: Homes are just too big and luxurious, says Laura Snider, science and environmental reporter for the Daily Camera in Boulder.

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BILL WOLFF, host:

Now, when you hear the words housing crisis, you probably think about foreclosures and people unable to pay their mortgages and things like that. You think about how home prices are falling nationwide at a rate of 10 percent a year. But in Boulder County, Colorado, housing crisis means something else. Homes there are just too big and luxurious. Times are tough all over mean different things to different people.

The county commission there has come up with a couple of initiative to address the ever-expanding size of the houses there, and what it means for this environmentally conscious community. Some say people don't have the right to build ginormous(ph) homes when they may have disproportionately - they may have disproportionate impact to the environment. Others, particularly those wishing to build their dream homes, say the government doesn't have the right to stop them from building however they want to build them.

It's something we didn't know about, but reporter Laura Snider wrote about it in the Daily Camera in Boulder. And when reporters do our work for us and then we talk about it on the radio, we call it ripped off…

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WOLFF: …from the headlines. Laura Snider is a science and environmental reporter for the Daily Camera.

Good morning, Laura.

Ms. LAURA SNIDER (Science and Environmental Reporter, Daily Camera): Hi. How are you?

WOLFF: Fantastic. Better now that you're here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SNIDER: Good.

WOLFF: First of all, why limit home size? What are some of the reasons people are against these big houses there in Boulder County?

Ms. SNIDER: Well, I think for a lot of folks it has to do with the environmental impact. People here argue that the bigger your house gets the more energy you use even if it's built to the same code. And another reason is folks think that it's - they need to preserve the rural character of Boulder County, and so the big houses, they feel like, are changing it from the agricultural land it used to be.

WOLFF: And - how would you explain the appetite for huge homes in Boulder County? Why do people there have homes that are three times the national average?

Ms. SNIDER: Yeah. You know, I think a lot of it has to do with Boulder County being - for a lot of people it feels like it's a great place to live. There's a lot of open space. There's a lot of trails, a lot of smart folks. We have a bunch of national labs and a couple of different universities. And so, I think its appealing that way, and so it attracts folks who have a lot of money to spend on building their dream house that may be as much as 20 or 30,000 square feet.

WOLFF: But it seems…

ALISON STEWART, host:

Twenty to thirty thousand square feet?

Ms. SNIDER: Yeah. Yeah. We had…

WOLFF: We live in only 19,000 square feet here in Manhattan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Right.

Ms. SNIDER: Your house is just a bungalow compared to some of them. I think most are not that big. But the biggest house, depending on how you count it, no covered porches, is around 34,000.

WOLFF: Well, I would ask, are people there conscious of the paradox of the perception that in Boulder, Colorado, people are environmentally conscious with the fact that they have these enormous homes, which really aren't environmentally conscious? Are they aware of that paradox?

Ms. SNIDER: Well, I think so. And you also have the city of Boulder, which many of the people there live in, you know, regularly house - exorbitantly priced but regularly-sized houses. And then the county, you may attract a little bit of a different population. But I think some of them argue, you know, a lot of times, oh, I'm putting solar panels on. I'm - and have a water - high efficiency dishwasher, so it's fine.

WOLFF: I see.

Ms. SNIDER: Mm-hmm.

WOLFF: Now, the county commissioner has taken a stand against these enormous houses. Help us understand what they've done. Can you explain what is called the Expanded Transfer of Development Rights?

Ms. SNIDER: Well, basically, what it means is that your house is limited. If you're in the plains, around - the number is still not quite firm, but around 5,500 square feet, in the mountains about 3,500 square feet. And if you want to build larger than that, you have to buy someone else's right to develop that they're not using. So if they have a lot, they don't want to build a house on, or if they're going to build a relatively small 3,000 square feet, they could sell you the extra 2,500.

STEWART: It's sort of in New York. We have a thing called Roof Rights or Air Rights, where people can actually buy the air over another building so you won't build something in front of it.

WOLFF: Or it's like in…

Ms. SNIDER: Oh.

WOLFF: …in professional sports. They have what's called a salary cap. That is, each team can have a certain amount of money and how they spend it is up to them.

Ms. SNIDER: Yeah.

WOLFF: In Boulder it sounds as if there is a certain amount of square footage which is allowed for housing and you can fight and buy and steal and barter it all you want, but the group can't have more than a certain amount. Is that a fair assessment?

Ms. SNIDER: Great. And their thought on that is that they have more open space even though they have big houses, and that someone who maybe doesn't have quite as deep a pocket could build a smaller house in the county and help finance it by selling away some of these extra square footage.

WOLFF: I see. And what is build smart?

Ms. SNIDER: So that's the other, sort of, attack on big houses. It's a really aggressive green-building program where the bigger your house is, the tougher the standards are. So as your house gets bigger, it has to be more energy efficient and at some point, it has to actually have on-site renewables.

WOLFF: And quickly, finally, what is the political vibe there? That is, how do the citizens take to the governmental control of how big their houses can be?

Ms. SNIDER: You know, at most of the public meetings, the vibe is pretty negative. But I also believe that to be most of the folks showing up have specific plans for houses that would be affected. I think if you polled the general public in Boulder, they'd be okay with it.

WOLFF: Essentially, the people with big houses say don't tread on my right to live…

Ms. SNIDER: Right.

WOLFF: …in gigantic McMansion(ph).

Ms. SNIDER: And the people who live in the small houses already don't bother going to the public meetings for that particular issue.

WOLFF: Laura Snider is a science and environmental reporter at the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado.

Laura, thank you very kindly for being with us.

Ms. SNIDER: Sure. Have a great day.

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