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If we build it, they will come

Tom Boyd

It’s not often that a researcher can be her own case study, but Rebecca Leonard fits her own paradigm perfectly.As Eagle County’s senior planner, it’s Leonard’s job to look far into the Valley’s future, and figure out exactly who is moving here, and why, and whether or not current growth trends will continue.So it helps, in her case, to have first-hand experience.Born in Indiana, Leonard was working in Melbourne, Australia as a planner down under when she and her husband went looking for a new, ideal place to live.”We were looking for a setting where we had some of the amenities of a city like transportation, cultural events and so we had a few cities in mind.”But Leonard and her husband were also looking for career-oriented jobs for each of them, and like many, when they discovered jobs in Eagle County in 2001 they knew they had found their new home.”We knew we could have those urban amenities,” Leonard recalls. “Musicians come to Vail and to Aspen that wouldn’t consider going to some 5,000 person town in Kansas, for example. But here we also have fresh air, the mountains, skiing”And so Leonard admits, if her co-workers find her talking to herself a lot, “It’s just research.”Because it’s Leonard’s job to get inside the minds of those who live, work, and play here, and to help make forecasts for the Valley’s future.Her work lays the bedrock for Eagle County’s planning department, and it’s also very valuable to business owners, Real Estate investors and CEO’s who are trying to figure out just exactly what this county will look like ten, 15, and 20 years from now. If her numbers and research prove to be accurate, our county will see a fair amount of growth but not in the same way it has seen growth over the past 40 years. In fact, Leonard’s research indicates growth will actually slow in Eagle County over the next 20 years but exactly how and why?The nine percent factorEagle County has been growing at a rate of about nine percent since 1990, making it the tenth-fastest-growing county in the nation (out of 3,141 counties nationwide).And it also grew at a faster and faster rate as the 1990s continued on. If Eagle County continues to grow at the nine percent rate, Eagle County would be filled to the brim (and spilling over) with 600,000 people by 2030 a population that would most likely spell disaster for the county. Current County land-use maps allow for 120,000 dwelling units as an absolute maximum, with a little over 80,000 approved today.So it’s probably a relief to many that the state demographer tallies in with a much more conservative 82,000 people by the year 2030.That’s still a doubling of today’s numbers, which the U.S. Census Bureau reported to be a little over 43,000 in 2001.But Leonard points out that the state demographer’s office has underestimated Eagle County’s growth by as much as 35 percent over the past three decades coming in with low numbers every time.Could the demographer be conservative again?It’s the economy (and labor)Leonard doesn’t venture a personal opinion on population numbers for 2030, but she stresses one very important point: Growth is inextricably tied to the economy. If the economy slows, growth slows, and visa-versa.With this in mind, Leonard indicates that the county should see slower growth than it saw in the 80s and 90s.”Ski numbers have been flat for a while, and tourism numbers aren’t growing as fast as in other sectors,” she says. “I’m not aware that there’s any looming, new tourism attraction coming down the pipeline there’s no more Beaver Creek’s planned, there’s no more Vail’s planned.”With the slowing economy factored in, it seems likely that the County’s population will be higher than the demographer’s prediction, but lower than the astounding, 600,000-person count possible with continued nine percent growth.Leonard also points to labor force issues that could slow growth.”When you compare (labor force and economics), those two don’t balance out,” Leonard says. If baby boomers continue to decide to retire here, and current locals join them in the retirement pool, an imbalance between the workforce and the population could develop.”Typically, when you run out of people in the workforce, you migrate people in,” she says. “You wouldn’t see a place with a poor economy growing fast.”Growth will happen but where?So Leonard’s research shows that growth will continue to be a part of Eagle County, but not necessarily growth with the high rates that we’ve seen in the past.The question then becomes this: where will that growth occur?Avon has the largest amount of zoned area reserved for growth, followed by Gypsum and Eagle (both of which have zoned and prepared to double their dwelling unit capacity over the next 20 years).North of Wolcott, along highway 131, is another area of interest. Most of the areas north of Wolcott are zoned for 35-acre parcels, but future county commissioner boards could approve different zoning for that area at some time. And another factor, says Leonard, is the Wolcott reservoir. If the reservoir is built, it could attract more homeowners to the area and give momentum to a decision to re-zone the area, breaking it down into higher density areas.As for Vail, not much growth or expansion is expected there.”It’s doubtful because we’re pretty much surrounded by Forest Service and BLM lands,” says Vail senior planner Warren Campbell. “What we are is pretty much what we are you’ll just see redevelopment.”The far futureWith current trends and forecasts in place, what can the county expect in 50 or 70 years?Leonard hesitates to look beyond 20 years, simply because there are too many variables for her to make an educated guess.But there are certainly limiting factors, water and geography among them.Water storage projects could allow for more growth, so long as snow and snowpack continue to come (and drought years like the Valley has suffered recently don’t continue to plague us).But zoning, at this point, doesn’t allow for growth to continue forever. One of two options would be available to future generations if they wish to accommodate growth: expand the perimeter of the zones (and thereby violate the principles of the Eagle County master plan by building into higher elevations), or zone for higher density re-developments on the valley floor.Either way, as Leonard points out, economy and growth are directly related to each other. If growth doesn’t continue, the economy will suffer. And if the economy suffers, population would inevitably drop as well. VTTom Boyd can be reached at tboyd@vailtrail.com


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