‘A problem of monumental proportions’
EAGLE COUNTY – One of Peter Runyon’s clearest messages is that Eagle County must veer from its present economy based on real estate and growth. In Eagle County, with its traditional prop-the-door open attitude, a slow-growth candidate could not have been elected a decade ago, he said.So how much growth is just right? Runyon thinks the old days were better – “old days” being when he was young.In 1970, when he moved to Vail as a 25-year-old photographer, working for Vail Associates, the county’s population stood at about 7,500 people. It took two decades for the county to add 13,500 people, and then one decade – the 1990s – for the county to add yet another 22,000.As the population balloons toward 50,000 people, Runyon’s greater concern is the future, he said. Demographers project continued, if not slightly tamed, growth for another 25 years. The driving force is baby boomers retiring and hitting their vacation-home buying years of 55 to 64.
But the more subtle story is the projected growth in jobs. With more retirees and more second-home owners, the real estate market will drive ever higher – crowding out lower- and moderate-income service workers. Where will their bedrooms be?If senior-state demographer Jim Westkott’s numbers are right, the highways leading in and out of Eagle County will become like giant lungs, inhaling and exhaling commuters – some 33,000 per day within a quarter century, compared to only 1,000 at the century’s turn.The assumption has been that Leadville and Rifle, both already bedroom communities, will become even more so. Think again, says Runyon. The oil and gas boom could well eliminate the Rifle area as a bedroom community for Eagle County. And then there’s the Ginn development on Battle Mountain that may be annexed into Minturn, adding perhaps 1,000 jobs that might be more easily accessed from Leadville. That puts the Eagle Valley into a pinch.”It’s a problem of monumental proportions,” says Runyon.
Runyon sees the county taking the lead in forging a new, big-picture vision, he said. He wants to retain something of a middle class in an economy that returns to more of its tourism roots, perhaps complemented by new business sectors, he said. The problem with the current real estate economy is that it is, by nature, dependent upon continued and rapid growth, he said. The most clearly defined middle class in the Eagle Valley is made up of people from construction and ancillary trades. But to sustain this middle class, even more chunks of land must be carved up, yielding ever more people on valley roads. Instead, he hopes for more middle-class jobs dependent upon outside sources of income, he said. So, who chooses what real estate gets built? That’s where the vision gets more muddled. Runyon has talked about what he readily concedes is a half-baked notion of rationing building permits. For example, only a maximum amount of building, as defined by square feet, would be allowed in any one year, he proposed.
He also talks about all the potential building allowed under existing laws. Current zoning could accommodate an additional 24,000 housing units in Eagle County, he said, adding some of those are unlikely to get built.But, on the other hand, allowing more housing units is also likely in some areas. For example, current zoning for the Battle Mountain property between Minturn and Red Cliff allows only 150 homes and 150 caretaker units. On that same property, developer Bobby Ginn wants to build 1,400 to 1,700 homes. Similarly, if a reservoir is built in Wolcott, landowners there may also want the ability to build more homes. Vail, Colorado
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