Fruita draws the line against sprawl

Rural town takes a page from ritzy mountain enclaves

  • Locator Map for Fruita, Colorado

    Diane Sylvain

Fruita, Colo. — This town with a population of just 6,000 is hardly a poster child for sprawl. Its five-square-mile area nestles beside the Colorado River between the dramatic sandstone cliffs of the Uncompahgre and East Tavaputs plateaus. Fruita’s apple orchards were decimated by the codling moth in the 1920s, but the town has remained primarily agricultural, its tranquility broken only by the hundreds of mountain bikers who show up for the Fat Tire Festival each spring.

But growth has sneaked up on Fruita. Over the past four years, town growth has fluctuated between 6 and 10 percent. Its much larger neighbor, Grand Junction, has grown, too, and in the mid-’90s began an aggressive expansion push, threatening to turn Fruita into a bedroom community. The town suddenly found itself in the middle of "an annexation war," says Bennett Boeschenstein, Fruita’s community development director.

Public concern led to two years of meetings between the cities and a decision in 1996 to maintain an open-space buffer between them. But Fruita went a step further and designated a three-mile open-space buffer all the way around its periphery. "We want to encourage a compact city and encourage development in the city," says Boeschenstein.

Now it’s time to turn the buffer zone into reality. To do that, Fruita is trying out a development tool whose best successes have been achieved in resort towns and big cities, a Transfer of Development Rights program.

Selling out is not the only option

Fruita’s sprawl dilemma reflects an undeniable trend in the rural West. "Farmers aren’t getting rich farming," says Tad Hutchins, a local farmer, "and selling out is really the only option they have."

But with a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program, says Boeschenstein, subdividing is not the only alternative.

"The idea is to give farmers money not to develop, and transfer those development rights closer in to Fruita, where they can be supported by utilities," he says.

Because development rights function in essentially the same way as water rights, they can be sold and transferred for use on another piece of land. Sellers in designated "sending zones" on the periphery give up the right to further development on their properties (an action legally acknowledged with a conservation easement), while pocketing from 40 to 60 percent of the land’s value. The buyers are property owners or developers who want to develop at higher-than-zoned density in "receiving" zones that are closer to the central, more developed parts of the area.

In effect, the developers buy additional density from property owners in the sending zones. TDRs can accomplish two things at once: They preserve the original rural character of the outlying areas, and focus new development in areas with the infrastructure to handle high-density development.

TDRs also offer a more palatable alternative to other growth-control policies. The simplest way to change development patterns is outright downzoning, says Andy Hill, a planning specialist at the Colorado Department of Local Affairs office in Grand Junction. "That’s politically impossible," she says. "TDRs are the compromise."

The gilded TDR gone country

TDR programs aren’t a new or particularly unusual concept. "Everybody who went to planning school knows about TDRs," says Mark Truckey, long-range planning manager in Summit County. They’ve been around since the late ’60s, and they haven’t just been used to protect open space: In New York, they’ve been adopted to ensure that Broadway playhouses can’t be bought out and converted into high-rises. TDR programs have achieved notable success in Maryland and New Jersey, but also in Western resort towns like Aspen and Lake Tahoe.

One of Colorado’s most successful programs is in Pitkin County, where over 1,600 acres of backcountry around Aspen have been protected with TDRs. There, people who want to build homes larger than 5,750 square feet either have to transfer development rights or undergo a daunting competitive growth-management quota process. Since the program’s inception in 1994, the demand for development rights has caused an explosion in their value.

"People who jumped in early may have sold their development rights for $35,000-40,000," says community development director Cindy Houben. "Now they’re going for $200,000 to $300,000."

Pitkin County has also seen the emergence of a speculative market in "floating" rights that are available for purchase by developers. "There are development rights that have been severed (but not used)," says assistant director of community development Lance Clarke. "They’re out there as currency."

Because of the high demand for development and greater density in areas like Aspen, says Hill, TDRs are practically guaranteed to succeed there. In Colorado, she says, all existing TDR programs "are resort areas or extremely high-growth Front Range areas."

That’s what makes a rural, agricultural area like Fruita something of a pioneer. But there’s no lack of optimism about the program, and a small but growing number of people are ready to participate. Fruita farmer Tad Hutchins, who is considering the TDR program, likes the idea because he can get cash for selling his development rights now, and still preserve his land as a working farm. "TDRs might be a way to square the circle," he muses.

And although Boeschenstein has yet to see the first deal completed under the program, he is optimistic that TDRs will help reorient Fruita’s growth patterns. "A traditional town makes sense," he says. "It’s compact, it’s walkable, it’s bicycle-friendly. I think a lot of people have rediscovered that ... they don’t have to be sprawled all over the land with trophy homes."

In a Western, public-land rich state like Colorado, says Boeschenstein, "It’s not like everybody has to own a piece of paradise. You can get to paradise in a minute."

Matt Jenkins is a High Country News intern.


  • Bennett Boeschenstein, Fruita Planning Department, 970/858-0786;
  • Andy Hill, Colorado Department of Local Affairs, 970/248-7310.
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