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An invitation to really think about growth

Don Rogers

The goal is to someday arrive at that happy state described somewhat squishily as “sustainable” in the face of surging growth these past couple of decades in the High Country, and especially in the Vail Valley.

Yes, the hue here is decidedly green, at least from my perspective so far, a couple of presentations into the series. But the organizers are aiming for a middle, non-partisan ground, and have brought in attendees across the ideological rainbow, shrinking a bit from the folks at the poles to the far left or right.

Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi is the catalyst of this effort to educate community leaders a bit more on a variety of growth issues. It’s a terrific idea, a wider discussion about our greatest challenge – growth – with expert lecturers and people in position to make community decisions in the future.



Organizers hope the course takes a step toward more discussion among the communities up and down the valley, and fewer decisions made in isolation.

That’s not to say they expect the class members to necessarily buy everything they are told. I know I certainly haven’t.



The second session was a primer on planning tools, terms, law in Colorado, stuff practically guaranteed to put anyone who is not a wonk to sleep in minutes but for a speaker, the state Office of Smart Growth’s Eric Bergman, who understands the snooze factor and managed to keep the jokes and anecdotes flowing – and his audience remarkably attentive.

I expected those blessed souls who serve on planning commissions to hang on every word. But even I stayed awake, and learned a thing or two. Among the things I learned, or gained is a better word, was a deeper appreciation for the people who must study land use initiatives and make decisions about them.

The first session, with the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Michael Kinsley, was far more provocative. Kinsley, a Pitkin County commissioner for a decade ending in the mid-’80s, now spends his time thinking in a more visionary way about growth.



His vision sews in economic viability while going easy on the environment and a generally higher order of cooperation and wisdom among the community leaders, business class and an engaged citizenry. This is a community all of us would like to live in and contribute to. And it’s a pure fiction. At least so far. But then, Jules Verne had to imagine space travel long before we got around to it in fact. Kinsley works within what’s possible, even if a bit far fetched for the moment.

So I forgave his sense of community planning as “bio-mimicry” while inventing connections between successions of plant environments and his vision of the ideal community. Comparing “grass and weeds” to ballooning growth as we know it now and trees to the “sustainable” community he envisions missed, and rather widely for me.

The guy was making up literary allegories, not really following a model of nature. Just as easy to say the climax forest chokes out life, and requires fire to sweep through to make it a living place again; grass and “weeds” provide feed for a lot more life than a mostly dead forest can provide.

Compared to human development, the “big box” retailers he dismissed as weeds are more akin to the tall timber, with deeper roots, tending to outcompete and replace smaller franchisees and mom-and-pops. But the big boxes aren’t so much out to compete for the dollars staying in small communities such as ours. They aim to capture more of the millions of dollars we all take out of town to Denver and Grand Junction – home of climax shopping experiences at malls and such.

We spend a lot of money outside our community, thanks in large part to our blessings of transportation. The big box brains are beginning to see a chance to keep more dollars in our community as it reaches a certain size, paradoxical as that may strike many of us.

Kinsley left this fact, for that’s what it is, out of his talk. Better to include this observable evidence of economic succession than to deny it; what’s most interesting to me is what comes after that.

Kinsley also brought up the fascinating observation that development often will cost a community more in spending for infrastructure and public services than in revenue gained from a fresh crop of taxpayers. We can see this just from the local May elections, in which a handful of special districts won our approval to add to the property tax so they can do their jobs better – or begin to keep up with the demands on them.

But he neglected to mention that it’s largely residential development that drains municipalities. Retail and commercial development are relative mother lodes for tax revenue, assuming a government entity hasn’t given too much away in the form of tax breaks. That’s why we have the so-called “flagpole” annexations to municipalities, to capture the revenue from that store or stores outside town without taking responsibility for the bulk of the land between town and the revenue-generator.

Still, we need to hear the visionaries, even if their vision seems more tunnel-like than skeptics like me can’t help but notice. And we need more nuts-and-bolts instruction, at the risk of putting us fast asleep.

So I’m finding the sessions worthwhile. I’m learning, and the lectures have me thinking. I hope the course carries on long enough that you can take it, too.

As in so many things, at root I believe education is the key to our future. Agreeing with an assertion is much less important than the invitation to think about it. One safe assertion to make is that we need to do a whole lot more thinking about growth in our valley than we have to this point.

Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or at editor@vaildaily.com


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