by Paul Larmer and Ray Ring
the scenario is all too familiar: Refugees from far-off,
disintegrating cities, packing their dreaded California-scale
equity, swarm into some previously unfashionable zip code in the
Which leads to congestion and a land
rush, prices and taxes leaping upward overnight, which leads to a
psychology of turmoil and robbed peace. Even basic services groan
with strain; there seems to be no solid ground to stand on. The
newcomers have a hard time finding what they came for, the locals
feel overwhelmed, and anybody lacking resources or predatory
instinct is inexorably forced out.
later than sooner, people begin to think, hey, maybe we should have
a plan ...
In much of the
West, the presumption that anybody can affect the powers of growth
and change remains little more than a theory or a
According to the 1992-'93 federal census of
the nation's 10 fastest-growing states, nine are in the
Intermountain West and the Pacific Northwest. The incoming
residents of the rural West tend to be summed up by the label
"ex-Californian," but they are also being spun off by Texas, the
Midwest, the East, as well as the cities of the West itself.
The growth is coming where resources are most
fragile and scarce. Despite the vastness of alluring scenery, the
West is shorter on private land and the essential resource, water,
than any other region. People have always had a hard time holding
on here, and to informed eyes the land already is already
Yet there is no sign of a
"This boom will wax and wane, but it
will last another 15 or 20 years," says Pat Jobes, a sociology
professor at Montana State University. "And because housing
subdivision, rather than industry, is driving it, the landscape
will be permanently altered."
It's happening so
fast, typical communities that have hungered for new residents and
new business admit to having second
"Until six months ago, the term
"growth" was only used in a positive way around here," says Keith
Fife, a planner with Mesa County in what had been out-of-the-way
western Colorado. Lately Mesa County's planning commission has
doubled the frequency of its meetings, trying to keep up with
proposed developments as the county's population topped 100,000.
Mesa County has a land-use plan that has been antiquated by growth;
the county has reached out for a consultant to modernize and
toughen its regulations.
Nearby counties and
towns are also groping for consultants. Several counties have
simply declared time-out, imposing moratoriums on new development
until zoning plans can be rushed into place.
terms of desperation, Colorado's Western Slope is just one story of
many. When planners from around the West rallied at a conference in
Cody, Wyo., Aug. 2, they composed a flier that shrieked, as if in
some pulpy horror movie, It Came From California!
The planners are gasping for breath, calling for
help. They are also eager to use tools that worked fine in
classroom modeling, but may not be so effective in the real
The spectrum of how
governments plan for growth in the West runs from primitive to
avant-garde, from do-nothing to try-everything. No strategy seems
to work all that well. Some determined efforts have generated so
much frustration that it's easy to conclude, "What's the use?"
"Any thought that you can control growth through
planning is very naive," says Thomas Powers, an economist at the
University of Montana. "Planning is a much more modest undertaking.
You're not going to keep traditional economic activities and
values; you're not going to keep Californians out."
Communities with huge resources and long
histories of growth impacts, such as Jackson, Wyo., and Aspen,
Colo., have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars imposing
land-use plans that zone every fractioned acre and address air
quality and transportation. But even these plans may only weakly
protect the last open spaces.
Ben Read, a former
staffer of the Jackson Hole Alliance for Responsible Planning, says
that three years ago residents and elected officials in and around
Jackson all chorused about the need to slow growth. But in the
laborious process that involved hundreds of meetings, landowners
and businesspeople choked on strict early drafts of the plan,
sometimes threatening takings lawsuits, Read says. Officials backed
down on all sorts of crucial issues, including affordable housing,
roads, and the creation of a wildlife zone where development would
have been prohibited to favor the valley's famed herds of elk and
"The plan takes only one step where ten are
needed," says Read. "How many more chances will our community get
before it becomes just another well-planned suburbia?"
Compared to the Jacksons and Aspens, rural
communities that have been "discovered" only recently tend to have
fewer defenses - or none at all.
"I've never seen
a community engage in planning unless there are at least three or
four things happening that indicate real change is already
occurring. That's just human nature," says Luther Propst,
co-founder of the Sonoran Institute, a Tucson, Ariz., nonprofit
that advises Western communities on how to survive rapacious growth
without total loss of identity.
counties still have no land-use regulations at all and chafe at the
notion that government should limit what property owners can do to
their land. Custer County, in central Idaho, doesn't even have a
building inspector. The Custer County seat, Challis, doesn't have a
city planner, a planning and zoning committee or a comprehensive
Last summer in Challis, when the Cyprus
Minerals molybdenum mine closed, laying off 200 workers in the town
of 1,000, 50 homes abruptly went vacant and were up for sale. But
the bust never materialized. Out-of-staters, mostly Californians,
moved in and snapped up the houses; now that the mine has reopened
and a new gold mine has started up, housing is tighter than
"There's a key principle in this planning
game: No one learns anything from anyone else," says Lee Nellis, a
planning consultant in Pocatello, Idaho, who's familiar with the
libertarian stance of Custer County. "You can show them slides and
pictures, but until they have their own bad experiences, they won't
Even so, the professional wisdom is
laid down by Propst: "It's just a matter of time before every
community will have to get serious about planning."
A psychology once confined to
get-it-while-you-can mining and timber towns is taking hold of the
entire region, and planners have to contend with
Marty Zeller, a regional planner setting up
land trusts in Colorado, has seen many of the West's attractive
places infested with what he calls "the impermanent syndrome."
"Once an attractive area comes under the
scrutiny of the second-home market," Zeller says, "land values go
way up, and the agriculture community looks around and concludes,
"I can't buy the 40 or 80 (acres) next door, only someone from
Manhattan could." There's this sense of inevitability, that
eventually you're going to sell out ... Why does it have to happen
to every great place? We're real good at that."
No amount of planning will prevent the steady
urbanization of the West's privately owned valleys, predicts Kurt
Culbertson, a planner with Design Workshop in Aspen. Anyone living
within 60 miles of a booming resort town, especially, is already
having to accept that the countryside will inexorably take on
aspects of a city, Culbertson says. "We really shouldn't be talking
about Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs (communities
along the Roaring Fork River) as separate entities. It's really
just the city of Roaring Fork Valley."
psychology can be paralyzing in itself. Getting residents to shrug
it off isn't easy and the first step can be a long one, arriving at
agreement that there is a problem that government can
Planning consultant Barbara Cole often
jump-starts public town meetings by asking people to write down
what they like about their community, what they hate about it and
any rumor they have recently heard. "That usually gets them going,"
says Cole, who is based in Littleton, Colo., and has helped
communities in her own state and in New Mexico draw up land-use
plans. "The tough part is discovering what the community will is.
Some people call me the town shrink."
Delay and resistance to
planning only tend to raise costs, in terms of ground literally
lost and dollars consumed until planners are finally called in and
forced to play catch-up.
As growth escalates
land prices, setting aside open space becomes more and more
expensive, and landowners hold an expectation of profit that
becomes more and more difficult to
Propst cites Red Lodge, Mont., northeast
of Yellowstone National Park, as a town that saved money and
frustration by reacting quickly to the first signs of accelerating
growth. The town recently completed a new land-use plan for less
than $30,000 - a bargain, Propst says. Other rural communities, he
says, could follow the Red Lodge example and "put in planning tools
before the investment expectations of landowners are huge."
Other communities can spend lots of money for a
plan they have trouble implementing. In northern Montana's Flathead
County, a Connecticut-sized chunk of land and water abutting
Glacier National Park, the business community raised nearly half a
million dollars to bring in Culbertson and the Aspen consulting
team. The resulting plan is a technological marvel, with an
advanced computer mapping system that incorporates information
gathered from wildlife and natural resource agencies about
wetlands, habitat and migration corridors, timber and soil
As progressive as the Flathead plan is, it
hasn't been accepted yet by conservative elected officials. Tom
Gentz, Flathead County's assistant planning director, says he and
his staff will do another year's worth of field work to better mold
the plan to the local political
Planning is always
messy. And communities can't totally rely on consultants to solve
their problems. Following one strategy or another, "Success is very
difficult to measure in planning," Propst says. "There are no clear
victories, and agreements are the result of compromise."
Many ranchers and farmers whose families have
been working the land for generations don't want anything to do
with planning. They might be tempted to cash in on growth, even
while they resent newcomers who work, vote, shop, and live very
differently. A ranch subdivided for telecommuters could be called
Paradox Estates: the rancher has realized short-term profit but
become his own worst enemy, says Mark Sawyer, planner for Park
County, Wyo., where newcomers are lured by the ambiance of nearby
Yellowstone National Park.
"Everytime a rancher
sells his land to someone from New York or California," says
Sawyer, "he's selling his ability to influence decisions, he's
selling his values."
"That's a childish
insight," counters Kathleen Jachowski, a spokeswoman for a local
lumber company and member of the wise-use group in Park County. By
jacking up land prices and taxes, she says, newcomers force
ranchers to sell while trying unfairly to place the burden of
providing open space on ranchers'
"These people driving Suburbans on
their way to town for lunch don't understand Wyoming. They've
jumped ship because they've destroyed where they come from. They
don't have a right to Wyoming - they haven't earned it."
To succeed at all, planners have to take into
account the acidic conflict of values and lifestyles. Sawyer says
land-use planning offers communities at least the possibility of
retaining their traditional values where the unfettered market
cannot. "Park County is going to change, but we can influence to
some extent how it will change."
is only in infancy, there is no mechanism for protecting the local
culture. In San Luis, a largely Hispanic town in southern Colorado
within range of Santa Fe and Taos, N.M., local planning has mostly
centered on providing new parking spaces and an airport for the
strangers who are wielding money and influence. The lack of more
sophisticated planning has encouraged the same old feeling of
helplessness in local community activists like Maria
"If you live in a semi-ugly place ...
your community has a chance to survive," says Valdez. "But we've
got it all: culture, open space, adobe architecture. We're up a
creek without a paddle."
Constant change has in many
ways defined the American West. The latest boom is no surprise,
says Jobes of Montana State University. The West's skeleton
civilization was bound to start filling in.
with this boom, "We have the interesting phenomenon of people
moving to areas and then creating jobs, rather than moving to areas
because they can find jobs there," Jobes
The urban refugees are willing to make some
sacrifices in their search for places that "conform to their
illusion" about small-town living, says Jobes, who studies
emigration in the West. Ultimately most of the refugees to colder,
rural areas will find the sacrifice too great, he predicts. He
cites a study of the people who moved to Aspen and Jackson in 1980:
Within 10 years, 95 percent moved on.
will churn and it seems likely - even inevitable - that new
refugees will take the place of those who move on. Jobes says that
the deterioration of the nation's cities, combined with the large
number of mobile, wealthy baby boomers heading into retirement, and
other dynamics Westerners have no control over, will sustain this
boom far beyond anything seen before.
reality for most Westerners is, or will soon be, people packed into
relatively few watered valleys, suffering traffic jams, air
pollution, crime, crowded public lands, and diminished natural
Global forces are now reshaping the West,
and any strategy of planning will never keep pace, says Dick Lamm,
former governor of Colorado, who sounded a warning about growth
more than two decades ago. Even if every state and community in the
West undertook state-of-the-art planning efforts, Lamm says, the
sheer number of newcomers could overwhelm the
The stress on the West comes from all
sides, from overpopulation and the overwhelmed carrying capacity of
the land, Lamm says. Immigration from other nations, which is
propelling population growth in the U.S., has to be controlled or
the West has no chance, says Lamm. "Talking about controlling
growth without dealing with immigration is like talking about
controlling air pollution without dealing with the automobile."
Still, planners such as Culbertson greet the
West's latest boom with optimism. They say this region, if it has
the will, can learn from mistakes made in other regions years ago.
Laying out a vision, Culbertson says we can plan on an ecosystem
basis and provide the rest of the world with a working model of
It seems certain that
the West can plan only a percentage of its future. To really scare
itself, the nation's fastest-growing region could look at how well
California's strict planning worked.
California, even private-sector housing developments cannot go
forward without an approved state-level environmental impact
statement. If a proposed development will cause traffic to cycle
through a nearby intersection 30 seconds slower, some mitigation
must be offered. Conservation impacts, open space, affordable
housing, mix of land-uses, even noise pollution are all analyzed in
the planning process.
And yet, when the incoming
crush of foreign immigration is statistically set aside, California
experienced the highest rate of net domestic out-migration of any
state last year - a quarter million more people moved out of
California than moved in. Once an undeniable Shangri-la, California
has grown to be so congested and polluted, for many it is now a
place to flee.
Maybe California waited a moment
too long to begin planning itself and catch-up just doesn't work.
Or maybe the grinding forces of population growth and an industrial
way of life are truly irresistible.
can do all the planning in the world, and it still can't reclaim
all its shine, still can't make the place as livable as it once
Stuebner of Boise, Idaho, contributed to this story.