Runyon: Smart growth gets my vote
Vail CO, Colorado
Judges give opinions. Lawyers write briefs. Politicians give position papers. I’m a politician, albeit a reluctant one. So this is my position paper on growth and our future together as a premier mountain resort community. Indeed, the management of growth in all of it’s infinite permutations while maintaining our quality of life is why I decided to leave my sideline perch as a grumbling citizen and embrace the odious label, “politician.”
It would be a mistake to look at my record of voting for denial of every major upzoning file that has come before the Board of County Commissioners and conclude that I was a rabid and thoughtless no-growther. The issues facing our community are far more nuanced than simple sloganism.
Eagle County is a product of a long history of our local governments, both towns and the county, evaluating land-use files in isolation with little or no view to the long-term effects of their decisions. “Hey, Builder Bob, that looks like a great project … go forth and build.” They were right. Bob did build a great world-class project, but there were little thought of how Bob’s project would integrate into the whole, either currently or into the future. That free-wheeling decision-making process only works where developable land is in abundant supply like on the Front Range. Not so in Eagle County; functionally we are an island isolated by a sea of public lands.
As a result of those earlier decisions, Eagle County currently has a total of 28,000 existing dwelling units (homes, condos, townhomes, and trailers). About 14,000 are owned by local Eagle County residents (about 3.5 people live in each unit) and 14,000 are second homes (on average, they are occupied just 63 days per year).
But wait! There’s more. We have another 10,000 to 14,000 already approved dwelling units waiting to be built (see sidebar). Whoa! That’s a 35- to 50-percent increase already in the pipeline, and, with a few exceptions, they are all second homes. Remember, as I’ve said in the past, it is a serious mistake to look at a high-end subdivision and see a bunch of nice homes. Rather, for planning purposes, we should imagine small factories that are job sites for lower-paying service sector jobs in landscaping, snow removal, housekeeping, etc.
So the problem is this: If we are currently struggling to fill jobs with the ratio of 50 percent of our housing units as second homes and 50 percent as local housing, what is going to happen when we double the number of those second homes without also doubling the number of worker housing? The Urban Land Institute believes that we need 10,000 additional dwelling units over the next 10 years over what has already been approved specifically dedicated to housing our workforce. The logical implication of that is an increase in population of 35,000 people above our current 48,000 just to keep up with the labor demand of all of the already approved development. Are you ready for that?
For me, all of this means that it is OK to take a breather from upzoning for a while and wait to let all of the unintended consequences of building all of those 10,000 to 14,000 high-end homes and shopping centers play out. What is the traffic going to be like? What is the local workforce housing mix going to be? Will we have sufficient water for all those hot tubs and lawns? To approve any new up-zoning without answering those questions is to fail our fiduciary responsibility to future generations.
Does this mean that I will never approve an upzoning? Certainly not. But the bar is going to be much higher. We need to be a little more sophisticated, mindful of the future, and layer our decisions on top of decisions of the past. I will not follow the historic trend of adding to the backlog of un-built second homes without a significant community benefit. For starters, any future development must provide housing for all the jobs the project generates. Then on top of that will be the many faceted catch-all of community benefit: additional affordable housing, open space, the energy footprint, community center, transportation solutions, child-care center, and more.
Tough? You bet. But I represent this community, not a handful of developers. To allow the entire valley floor and sides be transformed into one continuous development from Vail to Dotsero, would be a crime that our children and grandchildren wouldn’t easily forgive.
We have created the best mountain resort, summer and winter, in Colorado. Indeed, the world. Besides our quality of place we are known for quality of service. We maintain that quality of service because we workers love it here, we are proud of the valley, and we want to stay here. When we go back to wherever home was, we puff out our chests with the pride of being a part of a small community in the mountains of Colorado that everyone knows. That’s special, and should never be discounted.
Peter Runyon is an Eagle County commissioner. E-mail comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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