The planning tools being used in the West vary as widely as the character of local communities. Factors such as terrain, population profile and economics determine which tool is wielded where. Some of the tools have been around a long while: Zoning, for instance, had its start in the U.S. in 1916. Communities are forging other tools on the spot.
As a first reaction to radical growth, many communities just try to
say stop! - by imposing temporary moratoriums on subdividing land.
Park, Fremont, Teton and Lincoln counties in Wyoming have all voted
for moratoriums on subdivisions at one time or another over the
past few years to gain time to better plan for
In Colorado, the La Plata County example
reveals an inherent weakness of all moratoriums. County
commissioners approved a 6-month moratorium in the higher
elevations of the Animas Valley, which sits north of Durango
beneath the snow-capped San Juan Mountains. That allowed the county
to hold public hearings and draw up a zoning plan for the largely
undeveloped valley, says commissioner Josh Joswick. The plan says
more houses can be built where utilities are already in place,
fewer where utilities are lacking.
moratorium worked in the valley, says Joswick, but it seems
accelerated development in suburbs east of Durango, where there is
no central water system and new homeowners are drilling scores of
new wells without knowing if there is enough groundwater. Some
people already complain their wells are not drawing as they used
to, Joswick says, yet the state has not stopped permitting more
"If we just keep
punching holes in the ground, we don't know what will happen,"
The La Plata commissioners are
hesitant to apply another subdivision moratorium, even though some
people are asking for it. "You have to play that card right,"
Joswick says. He repeats a credo of the West, which any planner
works against, "I don't want to trample on anyone's private
still relatively rare, but sometimes by a community vote, enough
residents agree that property rights don't have to be paramount,
and planners are awarded a tool that's one degree short of
moratorium but longer lasting: the power to limit building permits
each year to a set number.
Boulder, Colo., was
one of the first communities in the West to get so tough with its
planning, when city voters in 1976 approved an annual growth cap of
2 percent for the city. Since then, city officials have set annual
building quotas. The measure, along with a host of others, has kept
Boulder a small city of 100,000 rather than a megalopolis of
300,000, says Joe Mantione, the city's comprehensive planner.
Critics say the quota system has caused housing prices to skyrocket
and made Boulder less affordable to the middle and lower class (see
story next page).
Even so, a few other
communities have adopted the Boulder strategy, and lately more are
considering it. In the city of St. George, Utah, which is bursting
from an annual growth rate of 15 percent, a group called Citizens
for Moderate Growth is collecting signatures to support a
referendum that would set a growth limit of 3 percent. "The city
doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up," the group's
chairwoman, Allison Bowcutt, told the Salt Lake Tribune. "We're now
an adolescent teen-ager and we're out of control."
Traditional zoning - merely
prescribing the location and density of development - is far less
dramatic, and remains the basic tool. In rural areas, agricultural
lands may be subjected to changing formulas of how many housing
units are allowed on how many acres. Often there are exemptions for
ranchers and farmers who want to sell off small chunks of land to
family members or to keep their operations
"Zoning is necessary
to establish a minimum code of conduct," says Luther Propst of the
Sonoran Institute in Tucson. "But by itself, it will only stop the
worst land uses. It's only one arrow in the quiver."
A West incrementally chopped up and zoned into
20-acre ranchettes is "the worst of both worlds," says Kurt
Culbertson, a planner based in Aspen. "It's 1 acre of house and 19
acres of weeds."
Culbertson and his team have
just finished a master plan for Flathead County, Mont., refining
traditional house-per-acreage zoning. For prime agricultural lands,
many of which are already subdivided on paper, the plan proposes
density bonuses for housing clusters. Currently one house per 80
acres is allowed on such land, but the plan would allow more houses
if the developer agrees to cluster them and leave the rest of the
land permanently off-limits to building. Such tradeoffs are being
Flathead plan is based upon state-of-the-art mapping of the county.
Culbertson's team gathered information from wildlife and
natural-resource agencies to locate wetlands, prime wildlife
habitat and migration corridors, timber lands, agricultural soils
and other resources. By computer, the information was superimposed
over a schematic of the existing roads and utilities to produce a
map detailed enough to let individual landowners see where their
land lies in relation to resources identified as important by the
"Just having a map
lets the developer know where the path of least resistance will
be," says Culbertson.
Culbertson says the
Flathead plan, which was drawn up after more than 75 public
meetings, "doesn't have hard lines' like classic zoning plans. The
land-use restrictions proposed in the plan are not unyielding but
are guidelines that can be altered by committees representing local
neighborhoods. The more localized zoning decisions are, the better,
Other communities, such as Ft.
Collins and Breckenridge, Colo., have sought similar flexibility
through performance zoning standards. Proposed developments are
evaluated on criteria such as impacts on natural resources, public
health and safety and neighborhood compatability, and then given a
numerical score. If the development scores high enough, it can
proceed. The philosophy amounts to "you can build anything as long
as you do it well." Critics say performance standards are too loose
and, if not rigorously applied, do little to stop haphazard and
Summit County, Utah, a skiing area centered on Park City and
located just east of Salt Lake City, elected officials have imposed
a timing mechanism to slow growth. The county has implemented a
phased development plan in which development initially can occur
only in areas where water, sewer and other services are in place.
Landowners outside the served area must wait, some up to 20 years,
for the county to extend services, says county commissioner Gene
Moser. At least one landowner has recently sued the county for
"taking" his property.
But with increasing
frequency, planning advocates are allying with fiscal conservatives
to insist, "Make growth pay its own way." The American Farmland
Trust, a national land trust based in Washington, D.C., concluded
in a recent study that simply buying undeveloped lands can be
cheaper in the long run than providing services for
Although many Western counties and
cities charge developers little or nothing of the costs of
providing everything from sewer service to police protection, there
is some hard reconsidering. Exaction fees - charging developers for
basic services - are now a hot topic at many county and city
Summit County recently hired
an economist to calculate a school exaction fee to make newcomers
help pay to expand the school system. The economist's suggested
school fee: a whopping $3,200 per new housing unit. County
commissioners approved the school fee and are researching
additional fees to provide water, sewer and other services.
"It cost us $50,000 to come
up with the school fee, but it was money well spent," says Moser,
who calls himself Park City's first urban refugee by virtue of his
move there in 1977. "We're making sure that our fees are backed up
by solid numbers."
Moser says Summit County
also requires set asides: Developers must dedicate 25 percent of
their land as open space (other communities have set different
percentages to be set aside). The measure has created so much open
space that now Summit County is scrambling to create a parks and
recreation department to manage the
"We never worried about
managing the lands because they were being developed so fast,"
Moser says. "Once it's gone it's gone."
communities are looking at taxes as a way to generate money for
protecting undeveloped lands. In Washington state's Methow Valley,
local environmentalists and a resort developer have agreed on a 1
percent real estate transfer tax that will fund the purchase of
important wildlife habitat and an educational center on land-use.
The result: If a house in the planned development sells for
$250,000, $2,500 goes into the environmental
"Can you imagine if we
had done this in Jackson Hole 30 years ago?" asks Tom Robinson, who
will run the Methow Valley environmental trust. "This would have
generated millions to purchase and protect lands there."
For many communities,
choosing an array of planning and land conservation tools is only
the half of it. The efficiency of any tool depends on continued
public support and understanding.
a planning consltant from Littleton, Colo., says it's the job of
planners and elected officials to make planning appealing and
understandable. "What planners have done is make planning so
difficult to understand that it turns people off."
Cole says the toughest part of her job isn't
deciding which tool to use, but communicating. "So many people
believe planning is taking away rights instead of protecting
interests and community values." n