EAGLE – In financial investments, 16 percent growth is a respectable figure. But when a town’s population grows that rapidly, as Eagle did during the last year, town officials get nervous.”I think you can safely say that, from a community health perspective, this is not healthy growth rate,” Eagle’ town manger, Willy Powell, said. “If you continue the growth of the last two years, that means the town’s population will double in only six years.”Most municipal planners believe that growth rates of even 3 percent for small towns is relatively high. In addition to last year’s 16 percent – a figure estimated based on building permits – Eagle grew at 9 percent two years ago. Moreover, it averaged 7 percent from 1996 to 2002.The alarm comes not from the new faces, but rather the cost of accommodating them. The impacts will be most obvious in traffic. Eagle’s two most significant pinch points are Eby Creek Road, which crosses Interstate 70, and Grand Avenue – Highway 6 as it runs through Eagle. Traffic already clogs during morning and evening “rush hours” and can be expected to clog more unless the roads are widened.For example, traffic on the spur road now averages 16,000 vehicle trips per day. If a new airport interchange gets built on I-70, as is expected, traffic levels will only increase to 28,000 in the next 20 years.If the airport interchange does not get built, those numbers will rise to 40,000 vehicles trips daily, two-and-a-half times as many cars and trucks waddling across the too-narrow bridges spanning the Eagle River and I-70. It’s these types of issues that make decision-makers pay close attention when a potentially revenue-producing project, such as a big box store development, comes knocking on the town’s door.How we got hereEagles’ first boom was during the 1980s, when the Bull Pasture subdivision was added and Eby Creek Mesa was subdivided. Although Eby Creek is outside the town, it uses on town water and sewers.
Development pressures intensified again in the mid-1990s, with first the Terrace opening and Eby Creek emerging from bankruptcy. Both were largely sold out by 2000.Largest of the new projects since then is Eagle Ranch, with 1,290 units, which could more than double the population. Also coming on line have been the Bluffs, with about 200 units, and Brush Creek Meadows with 200 more.Brush Creek Meadows is 95 percent built and the Bluffs, about half. At Eagle Ranch probably more than half the lots are now sold, although less than a fourth of the permitted homes have been built.Another 100 units will be built at Frost Creek, on Adam’s Rib property south of Eagle. Although outside the town limits, it will create traffic through town.A potential buyer now has an option on the lower portion of Adam’s Rib Ranch, adjacent to the Terrace subdivision. The presumption is that the buyer will want to develop the property, adding further traffic to Eagle’s roads.Powell says Eagle foresaw this growth, but are nonetheless surprised at the brisk rate. Now, they expect more of the same unless interest rates rise dramatically or something similar drags down the growth curve.Eagle Mayor Jon Stavney cites the town’s character, quality of life, and quality of its citizens as the reasons for the town’s rapid growth.”Eagle is one of the premier places to live on the Western Slope. Preserving that is still the No. 1 priority of the Town Board,” said Stavney, “Eagle is not a secret any more.” Still, he says, “character can evolve.”Paying for growthProjecting this building boom in the 1990s, the town deliberately set out to force growth to pay its own way, more or less. Although highly contested, the town mandated impact fees on new homes to help pay for street improvements. Tap fees for water and sewer use are sizable.
But in Colorado, as in many other states, sales taxes pay a community’s bills. Nearly 63 percent of Eagle’s revenues come from sales taxes. In contrast, about 7 percent come from property taxes. Slightly more than half of the property tax comes form homes.In other words, property taxes paid on homes, condos and apartments provide for only 4 percent of the revenue. The property tax could be raised to provide more revenue. However, an amendment to the Colorado Constitution called the “Gallagher Amendment” restricts the property tax on homes to 7 percent of value, but allows 29 percent on commercial and industrial properties.What this means is that the population of Eagle – now at 4,500 people – has been growing at a much more rapid rate than have sales tax revenues. Population growth has been steep. Sales tax revenues rose moderately after the opening of City Market, but in the last few years have been rising less gradually.The slackened pace may be the result of increased competition from the Wal-Mart Supercenter and The Home Depot in Avon. Other factors include increased Internet sales, and the malls of metropolitan Denver and Grand Junction.A recently completed town survey regarding locals’ shopping habits revealed significant “leakage” – that is, money spent out of town, particularly on items that are not readily available locally (clothing, office supplies, home furnishings, vehicles).Several big projectsThat leaves Powell and the Eagle Town Board trying to figure out how they will pay the bills for this expanded infrastructure in years ahead. No dark clouds are overhead, but they are on the horizon.The water treatment plant must be upgraded at a cost of $4.5 million, probably within the next two years. Most of that cost is to meet new and tougher standards imposed by the federal and state governments. About $500,000 of the work at the plant, located eight miles south of downtown Eagle’ along Brush Creek, will increase capacity by 20 percent, enabling the plant to keep up with the town’s growth for several years. Later, in 2010 to 2012, a secondary treatment plant is to be built.
Sewer plant improvements are also needed, probably at a cost of $8 million to $10 million. Again, more rigid standards required by the state and federal governments are the larger part of the story, but the capacity is also being expanded. That work is expected to begin in 2007.And then there is the matter of roads. More capacity will be needed in five years, studies say. The cost of these widened roads has not been estimated, but costs in Eagle may be inferred from work done by Eagle County government at Edwards. There, new roundabouts and other improvements on the spur road will cost $24 million to $26 million.In addressing traffic congestion, Powell believes Eagle will have some hard decisions about what it wants to look like, he said. Four-lane streets bring to mind suburban boulevards. While the argument could be made that Eagle is already very much a suburban community, that notion probably doesn’t go over easily with everybody.”That’s a question we will be forced to consider: How do you keep traffic moving and how do you keep that small-town template?” says Powell. At this point, the only resolution town trustees have made is that Eagle wants to be a pedestrian-friendly community. And that takes some work, and some money.Eagle Valley Enterprise Editor Kathy Heicher contributed to this story.Vail, Colorado