Homes in valley could double |

Homes in valley could double

Allen Best
Vail Daily File photo

A study by Eagle County’s long-range planner, Rebecca Leonard, finds that the county already has 23,000 housing units. Based on existing zoning densities, landowners already have authority for another 13,000 units.

But the underlying zoning regulations already in place could potentially accommodate another 24,000 housing units on top of what exists now, although possibly not. Building plans could be denied because of access problems or environmental constraints.

In addition, current zoning anticipates 40 million additional square feet of commercial space, half of that within Gypsum, mostly adjacent to Eagle County Regional Airport.

Even in recent years, local towns and county governments have been routinely approving new zoning for land parcels that allow more housing and other buildings. This is called upzoning.

Such was the case at Avon’s former 1,800-acre Stolport property. By state law, the landowner had a right to build 51 homes. Upzoning approved by Avon in 1998 allowed for more than 2,400 housing units, plus a small ocean of retail, including Wal-Mart Supercenter and The Home Depot.

However, sometimes developers have voluntarily down-zoned their projects. Such was the case at Avon’s Mountain Star, which at one time was zoned for more than 900 housing units, but which instead has ended up with only a few dozen. Something similar happened at what is now Cordillera’s Valley Course, where developers first asked for – and got – a higher density, then built fewer homes after realizing they could make more money by building fewer but bigger homes.

Still, upzonings promised long ago are the major story in Eagle County and also in other fast-growing places of the West. A cautionary tale is from Douglas County, south of Denver, which during the 1990s was the fastest growing county in the U.S. and last year returned to be No. 2 in the nation.

All of that growth in Douglas County occurred based on upzonings from the 1970s or before, reports Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi. Even at the time, government officials knew the water supply for this development – underground aquifers – was finite, even if there was general thought that it would last for centuries.

Now, however, water officials warn that the aquifers could be depleted, or become terribly expensive to tap, within 20, 30 or 40 years.

Family flight

But the future has already arrived in the Eagle Valley and other resort areas of the West. Even as population growth has continued, enrollment in schools has not.

What’s happening is that young couples aren’t sticking around. In order to buy houses, they’re moving elsewhere. This has become apparent in just the last two or three years.

In the Eagle County School District enrollment increases of 4 percent were common during the 1990s, and one year during the mid-1990s spiked to 11 percent. The slowdown began about 1999 to about 3 percent and during the last two years enrollment growth has been 1 percent or less. This is even while general population growth continues at an estimated 3 percent or more per year.

“Last year we had projected it at 3 percent, and it came in at basically zero,” says Karen Strakbein, director of finance for the school district.

The trend is particularly discernible in the kindergarten class. Births at Vail Valley Medical Center surged in 1998 and 1999. Based on that surge, Strakbein says she expected a similar surge in the kindergarten class last year of about 15 percent. It didn’t happen.

Picket fence factor

What’s happening? The proliferation of private schools explains only a few students, home schooling a few more. And, while one theory holds that Latino immigrants have returned to Mexico and other countries after the construction fall off, the numbers defy that notion.

This year there are 200 more students in English as a Second Language programs in the Eagle Valley. And, while Leadville has more rooms for rent, there are as many ESL students there as before.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that non-Hispanic white couples in their 20s and 30s aren’t sticking around. Instead, they’re moving on to places where they have a better shot at buying a house, a picket fence and other accouterments of “normalcy.”

“My principals say the people who have left are more of a traditional family unit,” reports Strakbein. “I don’t have any statistics to back that up. That’s just their anecdotal type of observations.”

Similar reports are being filed in resort areas across the West. In some cases, the migration can be followed west. Such is the case from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, where enrollments are flat, but schools in Rifle, Silt and New Castle are burgeoning. Some, in addition to Aspen-Glenwood overflow, are commuters from the Eagle Valley.

This dramatic shift – from 11 percent enrollment growth to 1 percent in a half-dozen years – also has repercussions for construction of new schools. “We’re just not needing to expand as much as we originally had,” says Strakbein. “We’re not empty by any means. We’re at about 70 percent of capacity overall. We’re just not going to fill them at fast as we expected. Optimally, they’re at 85 percent of capacity.”

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