County considers building freeze
EAGLE COUNTY – Marka Moser remembers when Edwards consisted of not much more than a gas station.That was three decades ago and now Edwards consists of dozens of a few shopping centers, dozens of retail shops, restaurants and a few thousand homes. Eagle County’s growth has brought some good things, said Moser, who moved to the county 35 years ago. “I think when I moved here there really wasn’t even a full-service grocery story.” she said. “It’s been nice to have your basic amenities.”But it’s not all good. “I think the I-70 corridor is quickly becoming sort of a condo hell,” Moser said. “I don’t know if there will be the means to save some of the undeveloped parts.”Those kinds of fears have prompted the County Commissioners to consider freezing construction all together for a while in the undeveloped and rural areas of the county. They also are considering lowering the number of homes allowed on certain undeveloped properties. Commonly called a building moratorium or building “freeze,” counties and cities across the country have used similar tactics to slow down growth or at least give officials some time to get a better handle on it. It could have a significant impact on developers by blocking their chances of building in the remaining undeveloped areas of the county, like Wolcott. Some say a construction freeze could hurt the local economy by eliminating many construction-related jobs, like contractors, architects, engineers and construction workers. But one contractor, R.A. “Chupa” Nelson, said there’s still plenty of projects on the books to keep those workers busy. “It would impact the construction industry by slowing it down, but that’s not necessarily bad with as overheated as the (real estate) market is right now,” Nelson said.
Now is the timeThere are about 16,000 homes that have already been approved but not yet built in the county. A building moratorium won’t apply to already-approved homes but it could slow the stream of building projects that are being submitted, said Commissioner Peter Runyon. “It’s never too little and too late, though you can always make that argument,” Runyon said. “It’s pretty much a given that our population is more than likely to double. What all of this is about is what happens after that point.”The running fear among many who live here is that Eagle County is fastly losing those things that made it such an attractive place to live in the first place: The pristine, untouched land, the small-town atmosphere and an abundance of wildlife. Eagle County also is rapidly gaining wealthy retirees and second-home owners, many of whom build luxury homes that drive up housing prices so much that buying a home is nearly out of reach for most local residents. Stopping “up-zoning” – a process that allows developers to build several homes in historically rural areas – could slow down second-home development, said County Commissioner Arn Menconi. Most recent proposals for second-home projects have been for the more rural – and desirable – areas of the county. That could cool the hot local real estate market fed mainly by luxury homes, Menconi said. “I don’t want to hear ‘if we’re not growing, we’re dying’ anymore,” he said. Unintended side effectsStopping growth will make affordable housing even more scarce, said Commissioner Tom Stone.
“You can’t be both anti-growth and in favor of building more affordable housing,” Stone said. “And there doesn’t seem to be a recognition that you have to allow homes to be built if you want to have affordable homes.” Stone points to Boulder and Aspen. Both adopted significantly more stringent development policies that ended up accelerating many of the problems the other two Eagle County commissioners want to avoid, Stone said. Both communities saw rapid growth in housing costs and both suffered lackluster sales tax collections because commercial development was stymied, he said. “Why on earth you would want to follow and emulate failure is beyond me,” Stone said.Boulder’s spike in housing costs was only partly due to a freeze on construction in undeveloped areas, said Stan Zemler, Vail’s town manager. He was working for the Boulder Chamber of Commerce when the county and the city began tightening development policies. The city set a “growth boundary,” which set a limit for how big Boulder could become. That contributed to the city’s spike in housing prices because there was a demand for new housing, which didn’t and couldn’t exist, he said. Still, Zemler recalled many were angry when city officials decided to lower the number of homes and commercial buildings that could be built on certain pieces of property, a process called “downzoning.””That gets dicey because people will, and rightfully so, fight for their rights,” he said. “I believe there were a number of legal challenges in Boulder County.” Time for a changeNoise from I-70. Open land replaced by large discount stores. Traffic clogging U.S. Highway 6. These types of things are changing Eagle County, Moser said. “I think we are very quickly coming to that point where you are destroying the very essence of what makes people come here not only to live, but to visit,” she said.
Stone disagrees, saying that the county has handled the demand for development very well. Nowadays, he points out, most of the growth is occurring within incorporated towns like Gypsum, Eagle and Minturn. The commissioners have no control over that. The commissioners do have control over what happens in the unincorporated parts of the county, like Eagle-Vail, Edwards and Wolcott. And they don’t need new, stringent regulations to get that control, Stone said. He pointed out a proposal by one developer to build several homes up Lake Creek Road behind Edwards where the commissioners asked the developer to make several changes to his plans. If the developer agrees to it, those changes would reduce the number of homes the developer wanted to build and make it more friendly to wildlife. Changing land-use regulations will be costly and time-consuming, he said. “There’s no sense in spending (county) staff time and the people’s money in doing something the commissioners are already able to do,” Stone said. Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado