Ghost subdivisions haunt the New West

 

On a gusty and overcast, chilly afternoon, the writer Samuel Western and I decide to tour a housing development in Wyoming called the B.B. Brooks Ranch. It’s a 41,000-acre subdivision with hundreds of available lots – most of them 40 acres in size – in a lattice of largely ungraded dirt roads. Platted lots are marked by low stakes tagged with numbers.

It stretches out about 10 or 12 miles north of Casper in a sea of sagebrush and scattered grasses. There’s an occasional browsing antelope, and nearby Interstate 25 hums with long-haul trucks laboring through the howling Wyoming wind.

Sam and I look around this empty place and ask ourselves the obvious questions: How far away is the nearest elementary school? How far away is a fire station, hospital, grocery store? Who pays to grade the washboard out of these dirt roads and repair blown-out culverts? 

The B.B. Brooks Ranch slid under the land-use wire in Natrona County, taking advantage of lax subdivision regulations that allowed isolated rural subdivisions to transfer to county taxpayers much of the long-term financial burden of their existence. Subdivisions like these are an expensive burden for counties all over the West.  Study after study shows that they almost always cost more than they generate.

At the time of the B.B. Brooks platting, Natrona County only had authority from the state to regulate subdivisions with lots of 35 acres and under. That allowed large-lot subdivisions to be developed with virtually no county oversight at all. But in 2008, as the housing bust tightened its grip even in Wyoming, a stung Natrona county delegation and other local officials convinced the Wyoming Legislature to change the rules.  At least in Wyoming, counties now have authority to examine isolated large-lot subdivisions with a far more cautious eye.

When it comes to budgeting, Natrona County must perform a balancing act. It’s got energy resources, and roughly one-third of its property taxes come from oil and gas, which until recently were booming. Casper's gross domestic product grew by 7.1 percent in 2013, making it the 11th-fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. 

Other Rocky Mountain energy counties also enjoyed rapid growth, including Greeley, Colorado, and Billings, Montana. But of the 281 Mountain West counties, only about 50 or so have the luxury of energy dollars. In addition, energy booms turn to busts, and when that happens, maintaining isolated rural subdivisions becomes increasingly difficult.

In Routt County, Colorado, where half the population lives in Steamboat Springs, a 1970s rural development called Stagecoach was originally platted into 2,000 lots. But only about 450 have been developed, and in 1978, Stagecoach went bankrupt. Stagecoach residents then began leaning on the county to pick up the tab. For a quarter of a century, however, the voters of Routt County have repeatedly declined to foot the bill, on the grounds that there’s just no money to do it.

In Teton County, Idaho, which has a population of only about 10,000 people, there are an incredible 6,800 widely scattered vacant lots in 403 subdivisions. Even with the huge growth rates the county experienced between 2000 and 2008, this is a 72-year supply of residential building lots. Today, many lot owners in these zombie subdivisions fail to pay their property taxes.

Times are changing, leaving these wildly ambitious subdivisions behind.  Changing societal preferences are leading more and more people to choose to live in town, where you can walk places instead of depending upon a truck or car to get anywhere.  Nationally, per capita vehicle miles traveled has dropped for eight years in a row.

Rural residents also expect more services these days. Ask any county fire marshal, and you’ll be told that the day of the rugged individualist who doesn’t demand much from government has pretty much passed.  In Wyoming’s Natrona County, for example, the number of annual calls made to the county fire department jumped from 648 in 1993 to 2233 in 2009.

Counties that don’t understand and heed these profound changes face financial and economic trouble ahead.  Meanwhile, many of the region’s counties have chosen to embrace fiscal responsibility, to rethink their land use plans, subdivision approvals, capital spending, and budgetary priorities. They realize that by being practical, they can remain attractive places to live and prosperous places to make a living.  

Luther Propst is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He founded the Sonoran Institute in 1991 and directed it until 2012. A consultant on Western land use and conservation, he is writing a book with Samuel Western on welfare subdivisions in the West.  

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.