Runyon: Eagle County at odds with itself
Vail, CO, Colorado
In the recent quality of life survey the citizens spoke very loudly that they wanted two things that are, by their very nature, in conflict. On the one hand they want to: control traffic (86 percent) slow growth (80 percent), and preserve open space (78 percent), but, on the other hand, they want reasonable cost of living (70 percent) and more affordable housing (76 percent). I agree with all of those goals, but resolving their inherit conflict in a county where the available land is rapidly disappearing keeps me up at night.
Eagle County is in the midst of an epic explosion of growth that began in 1990, continues to this day, and shows little sign of slowing down. Most of this growth, approved by towns and previous boards of county commissioners, was for high-end second home properties. With a few notable exceptions, little thought was given to answering the question of where the workers to staff this expansion were going to live. At the time, the simplistic and idealistic solution was, “the free-market will provide.”
Well, the market didn’t provide. There was simply too much profit to be made in $1,000-per-square-foot homes, for developers to “waste” their time and money setting aside land and building for average hard working locals. The result was the steady increase in the gap between the number of high-end properties and local affordable housing. This gap is being further increased by the relentless process of working families selling their long-held, free-market homes for prices that today’s working families can no longer afford.
Because we failed to plan properly for the future, we, your governments, in cooperation with the businesses, are faced with the unenviable job of picking up the pieces, as well as planning for yet more impacts to come from the estimated 10,000 to 14,000 additional second homes already approved but not yet built. (Eagle County, in conjunction with the towns, is in the process of updating and refining those numbers).
Here is the rub: The very solutions, more deed-restricted housing and more rent-controlled properties, are going to accelerate the very growth rate problem we are also trying to mitigate. More traffic. More people. More schools. More jobs. More pollution. More crime. More everything. Conflicting priorities.
Does this mean that we throw our collective hands in the air and do nothing? Certainly not! What it does mean, is that we should fully consider all of our options as well as their impacts, particularly on receiving communities.
No matter where you live along this I-70 corridor in Eagle County, every citizen moved here, stayed here, and invested here for the quality of life. They came here for a mountain lifestyle, not to live in an urban town that happens to be in the mountains.
Very few move into one of our communities and say, “I just can’t wait until we have more traffic.” Therefore, it is imperative that we balance these legitimate concerns with the ongoing need for affordable housing. It is this core conflict of priorities that keeps me pacing. We must consider solutions that may not make everyone happy but which everyone can accept.
Working on solutions
At the county, one of our goals is to attack the housing problem by purchasing parcels of land, some large, some small, spread up and down the valley. We will then partner with others, towns and businesses, to develop a range of housing products, single family homes, condos and apartments, deed-restricted, for-sale units as well as units for rent. Ideally, we will recover all or most of our original investment, which we can then roll over into additional projects. It will be a long-term project requiring careful thought and collaboration.
Within this strategy the single best solution is often also the most expensive, surprise, surprise. Specifically, that solution is buying free-market units as well as unbuilt, but previously approved developments around the valley (for example, Stratton Flats in Gypsum), discounting them a modest amount, and caping their appreciation with a deed restriction. This has the huge advantage of a creating no additional growth and minimizes incremental impacts on existing communities.
The next best solution is Wolcott. All of our communities along the corridor are steadily growing up as well as out. And all are struggling with constantly mounting traffic problems. All, that is, except one: Wolcott. In an ideal world, I would choose to preserve it from the bulldozers, (indeed I voted, in vain, to deny The Vines at Vail, precisely because affordable housing mitigation was inadequately addressed). But that is not the world we live in. We live in a world that needs obtainable housing now and in the future. With partners from the private sector, we can and should build a charming local-centric, deed-restricted Wolcott village.
There are also a number of other parcels of varying sizes that we are considering up and down the valley. Predictably, these offer additional complexities and questions. How much is the land worth? How much density is appropriate for the existing community? Can the community absorb the additional impacts and retain their quality of life? What will the traffic impacts be?
Finding the line between conflicting priorities will be with us for decades. Indeed, finding that balance in this complex tug-of-war of priorities has led to strong differences of opinion on the Board of County Commissioners. Because we share a desire to work on equitable solutions to these, with help and input from the citizens, the towns, the county and the business community, we will address our housing problems, but not at the expense of our cherished mountain lifestyle.
Peter Runyon is an Eagle County commissioner. E-mail comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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