Understanding Boulder County Land Use and Building Regulations

Understanding Boulder County Land Use and Building Regulations

When people move from the city to the country, they expect the land use and building regulations to be more lax. After all, with all the space folks have, certainly they would have more leeway to build and do what they want on all that acreage. Not so in Boulder county. Interestingly – and often frustratingly so to local property owners – Boulder county has more stringent land use regulations (and a seemingly arbitrary review process) and building codes than the city of Boulder. It’s wonderful to live in gorgeous Boulder County, but you have to know what you’re getting into when you move there.

Here are a few of the basics:


Maximum Home Size

Let’s say you want to build or expand a Boulder County home. It doesn’t matter how many acres you have – two or 2,000 – a home’s allotted maximum square footage size is the same, based on a seemingly arbitrary formula that causes most folks to scratch their head in dismay.

The process is called a PSA, a “presumptive size analysis.” It is used to determine the maximum size of house that Boulder County Land Use has decided to allow for a specific property. It considers all “like kind” neighboring houses within a 1500-foot radius. Then the MEDIAN square footage size of these homes is the basis of what one can built – not the AVERAGE. For example, if there are ten homes in your radius, and six are 1,500 square feet and four are 15,000 square feet, you can built a home or expand an existing one to only 1,500 square feet.

Further, if you have a little farmhouse right next door to a grandiose subdivision with McMansions, the house sizes of the subdivision do not count. Why? Who knows! Also, seemingly unfair is some property owners completely get around these rules by trading stuff with the county.


Building Other Structures

What about building barns, pools, guest homes, horse facilities and outbuildings? For all but the most basic of permits a review process in highly probable. Attempting to build these may require a Limited Impact Special Review, a Special Review or a Site Plan Review. These are expensive and will require a commissioner’s hearing.


The Changing Nature of Regulations

Boulder County Land Use regulations change on a regular basis at the county’s sole discretion. Over the years county property taxes have been rising but property owner’s rights are diminishing. With 30 years of Boulder county real estate experience, I know the rules and required processes as well as anybody. And yet sometimes even I am taken aback their changing nature.


Building Regulations

Again, rather surprising to folks who move to the country, Boulder county building regulations are often more stringent than the city of Boulder. If you want to build a house, do a remodel or addition, it’s best to understand how these impact your building costs before proceeding. Certain local building contractors specialize in working in the county and are familiar with the nuances of the requirements and the process. Meeting with one of them before purchasing a property is advisable.



Increasingly, horses (the original agricultural power plant) are being considered the pursuit of the wealthy and are being spurned under new regulations. The reality is that they are magnificent stewards of the land, elegant decorations to it, and provide a real outlet for challenged hay farmers since horse hay commands a price premium. Where cattle are easy keepers horses generate significant employment opportunities through feed, bedding and care needs.


Living the country life in Boulder County is wonderful. But it’s best to understand a property’s limitations before you purchase it. Hire a seasoned rural real estate expert who understands Boulder County’s land use processes and building regulations and can guide you to make a wise purchase.