Vail Daily letter: Land use and housing
October 10, 2016
In following the Vail Daily's reporting on discussions of affordable housing in the valley and in particular within the town of Vail, it seems to me a very basic issue has been lost in the framing of the debate: Land use restrictions are incompatible with affordable housing. Resorts are attractive to tourists largely due to the exclusive environment created by land-use restrictions (open spaces, view corridors, conservation easements, etc.). Resort homeowners' house prices are also supported by land use restrictions.
Perhaps this perspective has been lost because many longtime residents and leaders of the town of Vail remember a time in the past when workers could affordably live there, and nostalgically want to hold on to this notion. I have great sympathy for these thoughts.
However, housing prices are everywhere a function of land use restrictions. Numerous studies show that land use restrictions in the San Francisco Bay Area, where almost all undeveloped land is restricted under environmental or aesthetic auspices, has led to some of the country's highest housing prices. By contrast, Houston has virtually no restrictions and has affordable house prices.
The valley's resort areas are no different. The true affordable housing solution is an expansion of worker housing downvalley supported by transportation improvements, including potentially Vail Resorts' affiliate Colorado Mountain Express being pressed into service to aid worker commutes. Boosting the convenience and frequency of public transport is also a key to solving the parking problems in Vail. As more workers live downvalley and view the existing bus system as inconvenient, or live in Leadville where busing to Vail is non-existent, they increasingly choose to drive to work in Vail, taking up precious parking spots intended for tourists. Again, this was not a problem in the past when workers actually lived in Vail, whose bus system is very efficient. It is a problem now that workers affordably live in Eagle-Gypsum-Dotsero or Leadville and do not have the same efficient bus system as is enjoyed within Vail.
If alternatively the town of Vail prefers to spend its money to introduce affordable housing within its borders, the means are at its disposal. According to the Eagle County website: "Vail visitors and residents enjoy more than a thousand acres of open space, accounting for 30 percent of town-owned land." (The town of Vail website claims responsibility for management of 400 acres). According to "Explaining Residential Density," a paper by John G. Ellis, one can create density of 75 dwellings (apartments) per acre without multilevel parking arrangements, in mid-rise buildings consistent with heights in Vail. Using the county figures and doing the math, assuming two residents per dwelling, one could provide housing for 1,500 people on less than 1 percent of the open space owned by the town of Vail. Combined with diverting the $50 million planned on deed restrictions, this should do the trick.
However, such means run counter to the popularly supported aims of organizations such as the Eagle Valley Land Trust, whose activities validly claim to increase land values and preserve nature for future generations in incalculable ways. The trust is right that at some level — the extinguishment of open space will end the reason for tourists to visit.
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If not even 1 percent of open space can be on the table for affordable housing in Vail, why not explicitly recognize the incompatibility of affordable housing in a resort? As such, let the discussion go forward on a more honest basis. Town of Vail and Vail Resorts support for downvalley worker housing and better transport seems the solution. It should relieve the town's parking problems in the bargain.
Affordable housing and land use restrictions are incompatible. Any debate that does not explicitly recognize this basic fact is at some level deluded and acts as a barrier to action on workable solutions.
William T. McKinzie
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