Are there any lessons from what's happened here that might help other rural Western communities sort out the wreckage of their real estate booms and busts? Arizona's Pinal County, between Phoenix and Tucson, has hundreds of thousands of vacant lots. The West's newest ski resort -- the bankrupt Tamarack Resort in rural Idaho -- and the countryside near Bozeman, Mont., are haunted by zombies. So are several golf-centered developments in rural Colorado resort country, including Orvis Shorefox, created from a ranch along the Colorado River near Granby; the golf course there is only partly completed, the hotel catering to well-heeled fly fishermen has been shelved, and a consulting firm is talking about reimagining the whole thing as a destination for RVs. And so on across the West.
Teton County has changed some regulations: In new subdivisions, for instance, developers can no longer sell lots until their infrastructure is completed. Any new development contracts will have to spell out hard deadlines and penalties. The county is also experimenting with a tool for calculating the financial impacts of proposed subdivisions -- the Financial Impacts Planning System, or FIPS. It's a system devised by conservationists: part of the study done for VARD, funded by a grant from the Sonoran Institute, and developed by the Rural Planning Institute in Durango, Colo. FIPS primarily focuses on road maintenance, and assumes that delivering those services to a house near a town or highway will be cheaper than for a house way out in the country. The county plans to use FIPS not only to evaluate new subdivisions, but also to help figure out how to reshape zombies to be less of a burden on the county budget.
The fundamental lesson, says the Sonoran Institute's Randy Carpenter, is that the bigger the real estate boom, the bigger the bust, and local governments should be leery of the philosophy that "whatever the market wants is, by definition, great." Or as VARD's Trentadue puts it, "You need to plan and really envision future growth scenarios, and your plan should be unambiguous with very clear zoning and regulations. If you don't do that, you're letting your future be determined by whoever walks in the door, and that system (or non-system) tends to be inefficient and illogical, and you lose any vision of what your community should be." It's infinitely harder to undo bad decisions than to make good decisions to begin with.
But of course making good decisions, using a lot of foresight, is rarely easy. That's evident in Teton County's current effort to craft a whole new comprehensive plan that, theoretically, would incorporate the lessons learned here. More than 800 people have responded to a county survey about what they want in the new plan, and a main committee and five subcommittees -- representing various interests, including farmers, real estate agents, planners and conservationists -- have been trying to hash out details. The county commissioners hope to approve the new plan by August. But the process has revealed that the divide within the community -- between property-rights advocates and planning advocates -- is far from healed.
At the biggest meeting with farmers, held in January, Rutherford presented many ideas for how the new plan could be an improvement. They included downzoning (reducing the allowable densities for subdivisions in rural areas) and more emphasis on "overlays" -- the various maps showing wildlife habitat, wetlands and other sensitive areas that should be protected. About 70 people attended the meeting, and most expressed opposition to all the ideas. "It was a pitchforks and torches meeting. The answer to everything was 'no,' " says one attendee. "The farmers are concerned about losing control and they're emotional, frustrated." Some even believe that the existing regulations, despite their looseness, caused the bust; in their eyes, the unfettered free market is always great, no matter what.
Jaydell Buxton, whose grandfather homesteaded in Teton County in 1888, has already sold a thousand acres of his farmland to a developer, and he's among those who are leery of any tougher regulations. "I get really angry," he says. "We've been overtaken by the Easterners" -- his term for the conservationists and others who want regulations. "I see bicycle riders here, young people riding in the middle of the day!" And in fact more than a few of the leaders and staffers of the conservation groups did come from the liberal West and East coasts, and have family wealth and degrees from top private colleges. "Some locals still see us as outsiders, and don't want to hear from outsiders," says one. "But half the county is outsiders now."
The votes in the last general election, in November 2010, indicate that the county is split 50-50. Rinaldi, the former VARD director, retained her county commission seat by a thin margin (a few hundred votes), and another pro-planning commissioner got beaten by a similar margin by a native political novice, Republican Kelly Park. Park has a reputation as a property-rights proponent with an open mind, rather than a kneejerk ideologue, but his victory is another indication that many people don't like the county commission's recent pro-planning direction.
Now the government is trying to reach out to farmers with a series of smaller meetings. If the farmers continue to oppose tougher regulations, the pro-planning camp might try to impose regulations through the new plan anyway. But that would probably cause another political backlash. "Things may change" in next November's election, when two of the three county commission seats are again up for grabs, Buxton says.
Bruce Arnold is a farmer who straddles the political fence; he serves on the county's planning and zoning commission as well as on the subcommittee that's trying to involve more farmers in the process of crafting a new plan. He says, "A lot of people -- I mean especially the old-timers -- see VARD as a group that came in, wanted to do no development, meant to leave everything natural. So to them, VARD is a dirty word. If I had never been in the planning process here, I might think that myself. I don't agree with everything they do, but they do a lot of good by getting people to come together and talk things over." He thinks that if Teton County does impose tougher regulations, that "would increase the value of our land because we wouldn't have so many lots, and we would still have a rural feel."
"It would be nice," Rinaldi says, "if we could focus on the good things of Old West meeting New West, instead of all the differences and the fear of change." And it turns out, some good things are happening here lately. The real estate bust hasn't affected the scenery or the other amenities of life in Teton County, and many of those who've been able to hang on here say they like the slower pace. Prices have fallen so much that small homes in Driggs can be bought for less than $100,000, Rinaldi says; even "teachers can afford to buy houses now."
As for Matt Hail, despite having to downsize to a doublewide, he's found contentment among the Teton County zombies. He now works selling real estate for the Sage Realty Group and finds it interesting. He supports the county's efforts to reshape zombies and adopt tougher regulations, and hopes that when the market eventually improves, he'll be able to make a profit by selling a few lots in a small parcel he still owns -- which is next to a zombie that he hopes will be reconfigured to have more open space and a wildlife corridor.
Hail, who is 39, got married last summer. His wife, Julie Reggio, moved to Teton County to work as a backcountry ranger, but she lost that job in the recession, so now she works as a hairdresser in a spa in one of the stalled developments, Teton Springs. They celebrated their wedding ceremony at Hail's former house -- he's on good terms with the current owners -- next to the pond with the view of the Tetons, and then honeymooned in Thailand. This winter, Hail has enjoyed skiing the powder at Grand Targhee. Like many locals, he can get time off from work to go skiing when there's fresh powder. "The whole point of this" -- his move to Teton Valley -- "was so I could live where I wanted to live," he says. "I'm extremely happy."
This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.
Allen Best writes about energy, water, transportation and other issues of the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains from his base in Arvada, Colorado. His reporting appears frequently in Planning, Colorado Biz, WyoFile. net and other publications and websites. He also publishes a monthly e-zine called Mountain Town News.
HCN senior editor Ray Ring contributed to this story.