Can planning rein in a stampede?

  • The Last Stampede graphic

    Diane Sylvain
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  • Planning graphic

    Diane Sylvain

Note: this feature article is one of several in a special issue about growth and planning in the West.

By now 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 rural West.

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.

More often 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 wish.

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 scarred.

Yet there is no sign of a slowdown.

"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 thoughts.

"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.

In 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 world.

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 deer.

"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.

Many rural 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 plan.

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 ever.

"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 respond."

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 it.

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."

Such 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 solve.

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 satisfy.

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 type.

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 climate.

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' shoulders.

"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."

Where planning 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 Valdez.

"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.

Yet 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 says.

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.

The West 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.

The new 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 beauty.

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 region.

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 sustainable development.

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.

Today in 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.

California 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 was.

Stephen Stuebner of Boise, Idaho, contributed to this story.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Resort towns battle monsters

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