OF THE ORIGIN OF
BOULDER'S BLUE LINE
CITY CHARTER AMENDMENT
Albert A. Bartlett,
Professor Emeritus of Physics,
University of Colorado, Boulder
Map of the Blue Line
September 26, 2000
In the late 1950s Professor Robert McKelvey of Mathematics and I and
others would talk occasionally about the problems that were becoming
apparent as Boulder's population was growing from the 1950 U.S. Census
figure of 19,999. The earliest recollection that I associate specifically
with the Blue Line was one evening about 5 PM, I was walking home from
the Physics Building on the campus of the University of Colorado and
as I reached the cul-de-sac immediately north of Norlin Library, Bob
came by on his bike and we stopped to talk.
He said, "Al, we have to do something about all of the houses that
are being built up in the foothills."
I can remember thinking to myself, "Bob, you're out of your mind.
What can we do? We are just a couple of nobodies and the home builders
are rich and powerful, and are working closely with the City Council."
Bob was both thoughtful and visionary, and in response to whatever reply
I had offered to his challenge, he said, "We'll call a meeting.
Can you get us a meeting room in the Physics Building? Then you call
some people; I'll call some people, and we'll have a meeting."
There were perhaps 15 or 20 people at that first meeting, and Bob was
in charge. With real vision, he outlined the problems and we discussed
what might be done.
Here were some of the problems.
1) Homes were being built higher and higher in the foothills. The City
Council seemed ready to expand the City's water system by installing
pumping stations to deliver city water to developments that were at
higher elevations than the existing city reservoirs.
2) The Council seemed to be careless and was ignoring engineering recommendations
in regard to hillside stability and drainage when it approved developments
in the foothills.
3) Boulder's population was growing, so we knew that the pressure to
develop the foothills with trophy homes would be increasing steadily.
I am not sure of the chronology, but I remember news that at some point
the Council was considering installing a pumping station near the mouth
of Sunshine Canyon to pump city water up to subdivisions that were proposed
up the Canyon.
In regard to 2), at some point the City Planning Board approved the
subdivision plan for a new subdivision on the slope of Flagstaff Mountain
west of 6th Street. College Avenue and 6th Street were both paved, but
west of 6th, College was a gravel road that climbed steeply up the slope
and ended perhaps a hundred meters up the slope. The subdivision in
question was west of the end of the gravel road and could be accessed
only by driving up the steep gravel road. When the Planning Board approved
the subdivision, they sent the plans to the Council with a list of about
six specific engineering requirements having to do with stabilizing
the steep slopes and with taking care of runoff from rainstorms. Council
approved the subdivision without requiring that the developer make the
specified engineering improvements. This left a paved subdivision that
was reached only by a small steep gravel road. The residents along that
gravel road were happy with things as they were before the subdivision
came along. Quite understandably, they did not want to have to pay for
the paving of the short road section in front of their homes just in
order to accommodate a subdivision to the west of them that they did
After the Council approved the subdivision without the recommended engineering
drainage requirements, I remember at a meeting, Bob saying,"This
proves that you can't trust the City Council." This seemed to support
our feeling that the Council would not really make the hard decisions
that were needed to protect the people of Boulder.
The wisdom of those engineering requirements was demonstrated by two
incidents some years later. Possibly because of the lack of measures
to stabilize the cuts the developer had made in the hillside, there
was a minor slide of land above a cut in a steep slope. It was sufficiently
small as to do little damage, but it could have damaged a home had it
hit one. In the second incident, a heavy rain fell, and the paved subdivision
streets caught the large flow of water and directed it down the steep
gravel section of College Avenue. Large quantities of gravel were washed
out of the steep road and were deposited in the house at the NW corner
of 6th and College. It cost the City plenty to clean up the mess, pay
for the damage, and then to pave the short gravel section of the road.
I am not sure where or how the idea of the Blue Line originated, or
how it came to be called "Blue." But the idea emerged of drawing
a line and saying that the City would not supply city water west of
that line. Bob recognized that such a requirement would have to be a
part of the City Charter if it was to be meaningful. If the Council
established such a line as an ordinance, it would not be permanent,
and it could be modified by the Council at any time. But the Council
was not interested in placing any such blanket restrictions on development.
Their approval of the subdivision on west College galvanized our group
Sometime in early 1959 we formed ourselves into a group called "Citizens
for the Blue Line." Bob McKelvey was Chair of the group, and I
was Vice-Chair and Secretary-Treasurer. The formation of the Committee
was recorded in the Boulder Daily Camera on April 21, 1959.
After a number of discussions of where the Blue Line should be drawn,
a group of us took a Sunday hike in the foothills from south to north
to identify landmarks that would define the Blue Line. There were only
four or five of us, and I think that in addition to Bob and me, we were
accompanied by Hugh McCaffrey, Harold Walton and possibly someone else.
I carried a clipboard and took notes of landmarks. We started our hike
somewhere around the present west end of Dartmouth. From there south,
the Blue Line was to be a contour line at an elevation something like
30 feet below the mean water level in the Chautauqua Reservoir, so we
did not need any complicated description of that portion of the proposed
Line. As we walked north, we generally followed the City Limits as they
existed at that time. The line could not be put east of the City Limits
because the City could not deny water to lands it had already annexed.
There may have been locations where the Line was west of the City Limits.
I then took my notes to an attorney who put the description of the line
in proper legal form and helped us with the drawing up of the petitions.
We knew that we would need support in the business community if our
effort was to succeed. I can remember going to talk with "Gov"
Paddock who was editor of the Daily Camera. I found him in his office
in the old Camera Building at 11th and Pearl at a desk that was piled
high with paper and with his old antique Oliver typewriter was centered
on his desk. This is the typewriter that is on display in the lobby
of the new Camera Building at 11th and Pearl. Gov was very kind and
very supportive. He recognized that I was just a neophyte and he offered
advice and encouragement. I also talked to several other business people
on Pearl Street and was very pleased with their indications of support
for the idea.
The Council had rejected our request that Council put the question of
a City Charter Amendment on the ballot, so we had to petition to have
a special election At the top of the petition one had to print the names
of five citizens who were sponsoring the petition. As I recall, Bob
McKelvey and I were two of the names, and the other three were Bob Carlson,
who was the minister at the First Congregational Church, Gayle Waldrop,
who was Dean of Journalism and who had served on the City Council in
the late 1940s, and Florence Sibert.
Florence played an interesting role in all of this. She was a lawyer,
but I don't think she had an active practice. Her husband, Harold, was
a Professor of Aeronautical Engineering. Florence watched the Council
very closely, and she loved to catch the Council doing things that violated
the Charter, or violated common sense. On one occasion, I believe the
Council was ready to enter into some sort of agreement that would allow
the development of an apartment complex on the beautiful Chautauqua
meadows just south of Baseline. She blew the whistle, and angry citizens
joined her in stopping this unfortunate proposal. On another occasion,
the County Commissioners were about to do something on Courthouse Square.
Perhaps they were going to put in a great deal of parking. She looked
up the records of the City's deeding the Square to the County and found
that such a use of the Square was prohibited in the deed, and in calling
attention to this, she forced the Commissioners to back off in their
Shortly after we had initiated the petitions, Florence said she was
going to withdraw from our Blue Line effort because she had a fight
of her own with the City and she did not want to have the two efforts
confused. The City needed to expand its water treatment and delivery
system. It hired some out-of-town engineering firm to draw up plans,
and these plans, if I recall correctly, called for the City to take
water from the tailstock of the Public Service Company's hydroelectric
plant up Boulder Canyon and run the water to a new treatment plant that
would be built further down the Canyon. The water would be treated and
then would be delivered to Boulder via a new pipeline that would run
down alongside the existing city water lines that were by Boulder Creek.
You have seen those lines that crossed the Creek on the bridge abutments
of the old narrow gauge railroad that ran up Boulder Creek to Four-Mile
Canyon. Florence was not an engineer, but common sense told her that
it would be irresponsible to locate a water treatment plant in the bottom
of Boulder Canyon where it could be wiped out be a flood such as the
City experienced in 1894. The City's water treatment plant and delivery
pipelines would all be vulnerable to destruction by a flood because
the new and the old water lines would be located by the Creek. In addition,
she took issue with the sanity of the financing plans for this proposed
expansion of the treatment plant.
So, all by herself, Florence was going to take on the City and work
to defeat a waterworks project which had come up at about the time the
Blue Line effort was getting underway. She assured us that she was with
us in spirit, but she wanted to have the two issues separated.
At one point, a member of the City Council spoke to me, advising me
in a thoughtful and fatherly way about matters of city government. He
pointed out that one should not put things such as the Blue Line in
the City Charter because then it would be sort of cast in stone and
it would be difficult to modify and change as circumstances might require.
He said it would be better to trust the City Council, and if members
of the Council voted to do something that violated the intent of the
Blue Line, then we should campaign to attempt to unelect the offending
Council members at the next election. I thanked him kindly; we discussed
his recommendation, but we knew that we had to have the Blue Line in
the City Charter. Then it would be safe and it could not be overturned
by pressures exerted on the City Council. Once in the City Charter,
the Blue Line could be amended only by a vote of the people of Boulder.
There is a lesson here for the current (Fall 2000) statewide debate
over Ballot Item 24 which would amend the Colorado Constitution to require
statewide planning for growth by the many jurisdictions in Colorado.
Some oppose this, saying that it is wrong to put such requirements in
the Colorado Constitution because this will make it difficult to modify
and change the planning requirements as circumstances may require. This
is not a thoughtful argument; it is simply an attempt to defeat the
measure and to leave things up to the Legislature and to those who so
successfully pressure the Legislature to do things contrary to the best
interests of the people.
The petitions were printed, and so a small group of us set about to
gather the necessary signatures. Standing outside grocery markets and
on Pearl Street, we gathered signatures on petitions until we had the
requisite number of signatures, with quite a few to spare.
One very colorful person helped us in the gathering of signatures. This
was Mrs. Helen Fischer, widow of Valentine Fischer who had served on
the Board of Regents, and who was herself a graduate of the University
of Colorado around 1908. The Helen Waltemeyer Fischer Field on the campus
is named for her Mrs. Fischer had a heart of gold, she was big, and
she was enormously enthusiastic about projects that she supported. She
was very aggressive in her gathering of signatures.
The Camera of May 22, 1959 carried a letter that said the collection
of signatures was going well. We collected the necessary signatures,
and plenty to spare, and on May 27, 1959 I personally delivered the
stack of petitions to the City Clerk, Carl Chappel, in his office in
City Hall. The signatures were checked and the Council was forced to
set an election date.They chose July 21, 1959 and there were to be two
issues on the ballot. One was the City's water bond issue which was
strongly opposed by Florence Sibert, and the other was the Blue Line
Amendment to the City Charter.
So the battle lines were drawn. The fight was on.
As I recall, the water Bond issue was supported by the City Council
and all of the establishment in Boulder, who seemed to pay no attention
to the engineering and fiscal objections raised by Florence Sibert.
The Blue Line was strongly opposed by individuals who said this constituted
a denial of property rights of owners of land above the proposed Blue
Line. The development sites made the developers' mouths water. Think
how nice it would be, one of them told me, to have homes up on the big
mesa south of town (where NCAR is now located)!
In addition, there was a philosophical debate over the best way to deal
with growth. The Council seemed to feel that you should build water
lines and buy pumps so you can pump city water up to these mountain
subdivisions, and then the developments take place within the City and
the City can control the developments to make sure they are done right.
We saw this later with City Manager E. Robert Turner's "Spokes
of the Wheel" idea in which the City would extend water lines out
to the Gunbarrel area and in this way the City could control the development
that took place. Opponents of the Blue Line pointed out correctly that
the Blue Line would prohibit the annexation to the City of lands west
of the Line, but if these lands could get their own water, they could
develop in the County, and the City would have nothing to say about
the developments. Indeed, before the Open Space election of November
1967 there rumors that developers with lands west of the Blue Line were
negotiating to get a waterline from the City of Denver to run north
from Eldorado Canyon to serve lands west of the Blue Line.
We knew that the Blue Line was only a temporary holding action and we
knew that in the long run, the City of Boulder would have to own these
lands if they were to be protected from development. This was to be
the first step, but I had no idea how we might proceed afterwards to
get city funds sufficient to purchase these lands.
At the end of the spring semester, Bob McKelvey left to spend the summer
at the University of Wisconsin so, as Vice-Chair of Citizens for the
Blue Line, I had to run the election campaign. As I recall, the total
money we collected for the effort was about $500, and half of this had
come from one"angel," Frank Havice, who later was elected
to the City Council. We made great use of the "Letters to the Editor"
in the Camera. The main other effort I remember was the preparation
and mailing of postcards to those who had signed our petitions. Professor
John Greenway of Anthropology drew up a nice representation of the Flatirons
with a line below them and a message something like "YES FOR THE
BLUE LINE". We had the drawing and message reduced in size and
printed in blue on one side of regular postcards from the Post Office.
Then we had to address these few thousand cards by hand. We had evening
addressing sessions in our dining room where we all sat around the dining
room table addressing the cards. Ruth Greenway and Mrs. Reuben Zubrow
were two of the people I remember working on the addressing of the post
cards. I took the cards to the Post Office to mail them, and we continued
writing letters to the Camera.
Later in 1967 when we had the Greenbelt election, we used John Greenway's
picture of the Flatirons again. We just changed the message from the
Blue Line message to "YES FOR GREENBELTS," and printed the
cards in green ink.
The election was held on July 21, 1959. The Blue Line passed by a vote
of 2735 to 852. We were overjoyed. We had taken on the City Council
and much of the Boulder establishment, and we had won. But we knew the
victory was only temporary because the lands west of the Blue Line could
be developed in the County, and we would have little to say about the
quality and nature of the development. But at least, we had made a start.
The water bond issue which was on the same ballot was defeated. Single-handedly,
Florence Sibert had taken on the City and the Boulder establishment,
and she had defeated them. A few years later, and with a new City Manager,
E. Robert Turner, the water issue came up again, and this time the new
water treatment plan was proposed to be up on a ridge where it could
not be damaged or destroyed by floods. This later bond issue was approved
by the voters and the Betasso Water Treatment plant was built.
Bob McKelvey came back from his summer at the University of Wisconsin
that fall, and under his leadership we got the group together that had
pushed the Blue Line effort. We had a meeting at the Washington School
on north Broadway on September 24, 1959 and at that meeting we formally
established ourselves as PLAN-Boulder. Later the name was expanded to
We knew that the Blue Line was just the first step and that much more
had to be done. But we had successfully completed that first step.
Albert A. Bartlett;
Professor Emeritus of Physics
University of Colorado, Boulder, 80309-0390;
(303) 492 7016
Department Office: (303) 492 6952: FAX (303) 492 3352
Home; 2935 19th Street, Boulder, CO, 80304-2719: (303) 443 0595