Vail Valley Voices: What I’ve learned knocking on doors
September 6, 2012
I am part way through my second stint walking county neighborhoods from East Vail to the Roaring Fork. There are 30 precincts, each with distinct input.
Returning to a doorstep four years later evokes deja vu, dream-like feelings. Mine is an effort aimed at campaigning and governing to understand the breadth of different perspectives.
Our neighborhoods and land use remain distinct from one end of the valley to another, providing a testament to our towns with neighborhoods.
Walking is a life lesson in where pedestrian safety is lacking. There are a lot of great choices here.
We spend a lot of time mincing the nuances between land use in Avon or Edwards, Eagle or Gypsum, yet there is a great deal more than that to take in – most people like where they live.
In alleys in Basalt, I saw bear scat piles large enough to study foraging behavior. And while there, I scared up more than one deer just out of reach in home gardens.
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Walking old Basalt is a lesson in how we integrate with the natural environment.
Where bear-proof garbage cans are obligatory in Minturn and Red Cliff and parts of Vail, these places share heightened wildlife interface zones.
This is why I live here, among the wildlife that defines this place, birds in the summer and elk in the winter in Eagle Ranch.
In spite of the urban pressures that seem to make living here a lot like living in suburban Kansas City, our mountain communities are really uniquely a part of our environment.
The dynamic of individual communities is one we downplay our own risk. That variety is the heart of this place.
People in Red Cliff are more aware of the costs of water and wastewater infrastructure than anywhere else right now. Many gravitated there because of the uniquely low cost of living, yet the lack of quality public infrastructure underscores just how much other communities invest in public streets, drainage, water and wastewater. This infrastructure really matters, and it isn’t cheap.
There is little more important in local government than a strong sense of place backed by quality infrastructure. Most taxpayers remain immune to this understanding. Strong local jurisdictions with consistent values have a lot to do with success. Good places understand the value of investment in the public realm.
People in Eby Creek, like other parts of the county, are highly attuned to wildfire hazards this year. They watched federal monies being poured out one evening this summer to protect their neighborhood.
We should do more risk management in preparation for worst-case scenarios.
Vail and Eagle County have invested a lot in mitigation work. Still it is not enough. We should celebrate fire on public lands, and projects like the biomass plant in Gypsum, which would make energy out of this hazard.
I continue to meet people across the county whose livelihoods and sanity depend on healthy rivers. Some count days on the rivers like skiers. Many are pleased with county efforts at improving public access to rivers. It is amazing to see how many residents own rafts or go fishing. These are not overly political residents, yet they watch carefully what we are doing.
In Minturn, which remains one our best walkable communities, people are tuned to significant deficiencies for safe pedestrian access. The U.S. Highway 24 corridor through that town is one of our most significant shortcomings today.
This is a matter for which the town and county should work together.
We are making strenuous efforts to improve routes to school in Edwards and Eagle-Vail right now. Though less sexy, safe pedestrian routes are much more significant to people’s daily lives than building a new rec center with windfall monies. This is increasingly important as bus routes are curtailed to school funding.
Walking confirms that all politics is local, whether the need is a sidewalk or a new development.
It is a breath of fresh air to listen on a doorstep to the many who have comments, who would never come out to speak at a hearing. Listening is refreshing, and confirming of the work of public service.
There is a lot that matters to people that county commissioners have direct influence upon.
Our communities are awash in untapped input. An election is probably the only excuse that makes an elected official do such leg work, when those in power seek the opinions of the people rather than the other way around.
It should be standard procedure to expect that those who have the most interest show up to speak, but I realize that this asks a lot of citizens to know which hearings matter, or how or when best to make best use of their time.
In our system, we expect those in our communities to come to us informed and prepared. Yet walking is a reminder that it is our job to reach out, and it is our failure to expect that the most important comments will find us in our offices.
Walking neighborhoods is the best way to get a feel for how we can positively impact communities.
My experience knocking on doors – I’m at 4,000 or so now and peaked at 12,000 or so during the last election – is that the patchwork of feedback from citizens speaking from their doorstep is amazingly useful and encouraging.
As commissioners, we are overwhelmed with a docket of meetings and places where our presence is expected, yet the real education of a public official is in the streets, among the people.
To paraphrase Georgia O’Keefe: To listen and to understand takes time, patience. I recall she was talking about friendship.
Ideology is a fake crutch in this kind of understanding, as are political parties. Community needs are clearest on the ground-at a doorstep, beside a questioning family dog.
It is a regimen that should be expected of those who wish to represent us.
Jon Stavney is an Eagle County commissioner.