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Planning for Boulder's Unique Community: Navigating Challenges and Embracing Digital Transformation

Communities, like people, have unique personalities — shaped in part, by a community's planners. Take the City of Boulder, Colorado, for example. With over 300 miles of trails and surrounded by 45,000 acres of open space, the city embodies an outdoorsy spirit and actively promotes a healthy and vibrant lifestyle. The presence of such unique open spaces, coupled with a well-defined urban growth boundary, has effectively transformed Boulder into an island of its own.

Chandler Van Schaack is a principal planner for Boulder with 12 years of experience and a passion for helping the community grow sustainably while preserving its uniqueness. According to Van Schaack, "There aren't many places where you can live in an urban environment and still be able to get lost in the wilderness five minutes from your house." This is part of what attracted him, an avid rock climber, to the area.

Boulder's Unique Planning Challenges

As a former resident and university graduate of Boulder, he will tell you that what makes this community special also makes the planning process challenging. The City's urban growth boundary (UGB) regulations preserving their trails and open space have led to the city being essentially built out. "The projects I manage are mostly replacing something that was existing or adaptively reusing an existing structure in some way," says Van Schaack.

Boulder's extremely limited development space and four-story building height limit aren't the only considerations for city planners. Their active community is highly involved in the planning process and wants to have a voice in how their city grows. They care deeply about architecture, energy conversation, and walkability, to name a few. Strict regulations are in place to ensure standards are met. According to Van Schaack, "Due to the complexity of my projects, all are typically subject to public comments and a discretionary review by the planning board or city council." Community engagement is an important part of Boulder's culture as the city recognizes that local government makes better decisions when their constituents have a meaningful voice.

With discretionary review applications, like Site Reviews, Use Reviews, and Annexations, Van Schaack says, "No one just submits a plan and it's approved in one round. To my knowledge, that has never happened in Boulder." It goes without saying, but Boulder's plan review process is lengthy. The typical time from application to approval for the complex discretionary review applications that Van Schaack manages can be from one to three years.

Planning in a Digital Environment

Van Schaack embarked on his career in Boulder, spent seven years there, and then transitioned to the City and County of Denver, Colorado, where planning goals differed significantly. "In Denver, we aimed to increase density and affordability, so we were striving to remove regulatory barriers and make it easier to build." Following this stint, he moved on to become a senior planner in Mammoth Lakes, California, where development moved at a slower pace, and most processes were manual and paper-based. Approximately a year ago, he seized the opportunity to return to the Boulder planning office.

During his absence, the city had implemented an enterprise software system that shifted its entire review process into the digital realm. Interestingly, Van Schaack had been part of the initial team exploring software options when he first departed Boulder. The new system not only enhanced the efficiency of their plan review process but also enabled them to operate in a paperless environment, aligning with their sustainability objectives. Upon his return, Van Schaack was eager to utilize the new tool.

He describes himself as a super-user now. "Planning in Boulder is a series of deadlines. As a case manager, I coordinate the plan application intake steps, start the first round of plan review comments, and then manage the comments and review process as it goes through the various stakeholders. The permitting software enables me to see how many things are due next week and quickly check where a project is in the process," says Van Schaack. This allows him to efficiently manage milestones including plan reviews, resubmittals, and final approvals.

According to Van Schaack, "Most big projects in Boulder have a handful of key players — architecture, engineering, development consultants, and attorneys who know the regulations well. We communicate on all the comments, key issues, and the revisions or corrections to the plans that they need with electronic plan review." Near-real-time collaboration captures knowledge and departmental expertise in a cohesive plan review to recommend resubmittal or approvals and start the second round of reviews faster.

"Once the reviews are complete, comments are consolidated into a final document, and sent to the applicant." A concise summary eliminates confusing or contradictory guidance, allowing them to address the comments sooner and helps reduce the number of resubmittals. Boulder customers submitting online can communicate with plan reviewers and see where they are in the process. According to Van Schaack: "Applicants ask questions and resubmit their applications through our portal. Once they resubmit, it starts the next review track."

The transition to electronic plan review took some adjustments, and Van Schaack emphasizes the need for proper onboarding and training when working with a new system. He is learning as he goes and admits he much prefers the new way.

"I'm fully onboard with our shift to digital. It's not only better for the environment, it enables remote work." Another added benefit is that, with online submissions, a permit intake specialist can conduct a completeness check before it reaches his desk, alleviating a previously time-consuming task.

The City of Boulder's planning department shows no signs of slowing down as they face ongoing development pressure while striving to increase affordable housing availability within their community. The city has a goal for 15% of all homes to be affordable for low-, moderate-, and middle-income households by 2035. Leveraging technology to streamline complicated processes and coordinate the various elements will enable planners like Chandler Van Schaack to concentrate on meeting their planning goals and managing growth within their unique locale.

Utilizing technology, like Enterprise Permitting & Licensing from Tyler Technologies as discussed in this story, can make operations more efficient, information and services more accessible, and communities more connected across departments and with the constituents they serve. Get tips to help your local government make a purposeful digital transformation in this Local Government's Guide to Digital Community Development.


ABOUT THE CONTENT AUTHOR AND SPONSOR: Tyler Technologies

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Tyler Technologies (NYSE: TYL) provides integrated software and technology services to the public sector. Tyler's end-to-end solutions empower local, state, and federal government entities to operate more efficiently and connect more transparently with their constituents and with each other. By connecting data and processes across disparate systems, Tyler's solutions are transforming how clients gain actionable insights that solve problems in their communities. Tyler Technologies' client base includes more than 15,000 local government offices in all 50 states, Canada, the Caribbean, Australia, and other international locations.


October 4, 2023