A toolbox to shape the future

 

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

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 growth.

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.

The 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 wells.

"If we just keep punching holes in the ground, we don't know what will happen," Joswick says.

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 property rights."

It's 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 afloat.

"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 tried elsewhere.

The 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 community.

"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, says Culbertson.

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 destructive development.

In 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 development.

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 planning meetings.

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 lands.

"We never worried about managing the lands because they were being developed so fast," Moser says. "Once it's gone it's gone."

Other 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 trust.

"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.

Barbara Cole, 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."

The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:

- A soft-paths approach to land conservation

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