How dense can we be?
Living the good life in the 'exurbs' is draining our tax coffers and devouring the West's open spaces, but large-lot development continues to explode
Two years ago, geographer Paul Sutton was studying satellite images of metropolitan Denver when something unexpected caught his eye. As he had anticipated, the glowing nighttime lights clearly delineated the city and its suburbs. But in the foothills west of Denver, he noticed faint but extensive twinkles — a dispersed civilization just beyond the city.
"I said, ‘Wow, that’s where I live. I didn’t think there were that many of us out there,’ " remembers Sutton, who works at the University of Denver.
Sutton’s home is in the Conifer-Evergreen area, 20 to 25 miles from Denver. Around 40,000 people live in this unincorporated region of Jefferson County, among rolling hills covered by ponderosa pines. They live on large lots and, for the most part, in big homes, connected to Denver by miles and miles of coiled country lanes and massive, four-lane freeways.
Like suburbia, the Conifer-Evergreen area has rush hours, local newspapers and one of Colorado’s busiest grocery stores. But its semi-rural setting makes it different. It’s not suburbia; it’s "exurbia.
Suburban neighborhoods typically have from two to six households per acre. But even suburbs are far more compact than the sprawling exurbs, which tend to begin at one home per acre, and go on up to 35 acres or more. These are the ranchettes, the mini-estates, and the horse properties. These are the homes with John Deere tractors in the driveways and mule deer bounding in the backyard.
Exurban living is built on inherent contradictions. The country homes are always tethered to the better-paying jobs and more diverse culture of a city or town. "Far enough away from the metroplex to avoid traffic snarls, crowds and the 24/7 city lifestyle, yet close enough to enjoy world-class sports, shopping and cultural activities in the Mile High City," crows one real estate firm about its development in the foothills west of Denver.
Sutton’s home is a slice of that exurban paradise. It’s just a 25- to 30-minute drive (unless it’s rush hour) from his office near downtown Denver. It’s 3,000 feet higher than Denver, and in many ways a world apart. There’s a mosaic of aspen and pine trees, sometimes fox and deer, and not least, a sense of independence and isolation. From his deck, Sutton could not smack a golf ball far enough to hit one of his neighbors’ houses.
His neighborhood defines exurbia in other ways, too. It has neither streetlights nor sidewalks. Each home has its own water well and septic tank. And every home has at least one car, often several: Exurbia absolutely depends upon driving, sometimes hundreds of miles a day.
Before he bought his place, Sutton looked at city homes, but found the choices too costly, too shabby, or too suburban-bland. In the exurbs, he found everything he wanted. He’s close enough to civilization to get Domino’s pizza and flowers delivered to his front door, but far enough from his neighbors to have privacy. "It’s like Edward Abbey said, ‘If you can’t pee off your porch, you live too close to town,’ " he says.
What’s not to like about exurbia? Well, actually, plenty, as many environmentalists, land-use planners and geographers — including Sutton himself — have come to realize. "It’s really scary how much land it could consume," he says.
Encouraged by cheap gasoline and compliant county and state governments, and pushed by rapid population growth, exurban development is chewing away at the Western landscape. The region’s towns, cities and suburbs are also growing at breakneck speeds. But in the unincorporated semi-rural areas, the population is expanding even more rapidly.
"This type of uncontrolled, large-lot residential development is the great Pac-Man, gobbling up the West," says Rich McClintock, director of the Livable Communities Support Center, a program of Denver-based Civic Results, an anti-sprawl group.
If current development trends continue, in fact, some fear that it may one day be necessary to go to Kansas to find wide-open spaces.
The exurban explosion is about as subtle as a brick landing on a windshield. A few simple statistics about metropolitan Denver tell the story: Ninety-two percent of the population lives in relatively close quarters on two-thirds of the area’s land; the other 8 percent of the population sprawls across the remaining third. If the area attracts another 1.2 million residents in the next 25 years, as demographers predict, and if all those new residents live at exurban densities, the metro area will more than triple from its existing 750 square miles, to about half the size of Yellowstone National Park.
That’s just one metro area. What’s scary is how much population growth lies ahead in the Intermountain West, and how much wealth — a key enabler of exurban development — is headed this way. Exurban development already has a huge footprint on the land, and it’s getting bigger by the day.
The term "exurbia" was coined in 1955 by Auguste Spectorsky, an editor at Playboy magazine, in a book he wrote about wealthy neighborhoods beyond the immediate suburbs of New York City. Geographers began focusing on exurbia about a decade ago, and the term has become common in the press during the past two years, loosely referring to the newer, more affluent rings of suburbs that are no longer connected to traditional downtowns. New York Times columnist David Brooks argued that Democrats lost the national election last November because, unlike Republicans, they didn’t even know where exurbia is, much less understand it.
True exurbia, with its large lots and separation from job centers, has existed since the early 20th century. Many of today’s inner-ring suburbs were originally home to mini-farms serviced by trains from the cities, and to weekend retreats at the end of long dirt lanes. After World War II, those exurbs turned into suburbs, as cars and improved roads made longer commutes possible. The exurbs, in turn, spread farther outward.
In Colorado over the last 40 years, an average 144,000 acres of farmland has been lost annually to other uses, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. Exurban development is largely responsible. Between 1960 and 1990, Colorado’s unincorporated semi-rural areas gained population three times more rapidly than its towns and cities. In the 1990s, large-lot construction rose sharply in Jefferson, Douglas and other counties along Colorado’s urbanized Front Range.
This development trend is playing out across the West. Most often, it’s within an hour to an hour-and-a-half of cities, but the same patterns can be found around small towns, particularly near resorts and national parks.
Exurban development is exploding in California’s Sierra Nevada and flanking the coast cities from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. Near Bozeman, Mont., buyers of large lots are nuzzling up to nature — and contesting the turf of grizzly bears (HCN, 5/10/99: In Montana: The view from the ranchette). The eastern portal to Utah’s Zion National Park is being carved up into larger lots, putting residents close to heaven but a long way from the grocery store (HCN, 9/29/97: 'Greens' bulldoze a conservation effort). In Durango, Colo., last winter, a newspaper advertised "20 acres next to the national forest only 20 minutes from downtown."
In Durango, as in Conifer, the jobs may be relatively close. But in Western ski towns, the jobs may actually be in New York City, or in Washington, D.C., as is the case for Vice President Dick Cheney, a large-lot owner in Wyoming’s Jackson Hole. Near Park City, Utah, a resident stuntwoman keeps her Los Angeles cell phone to give callers the illusion of her proximity to Hollywood. In fact, at just 35 minutes from the Salt Lake City airport, she’s fudging the truth only slightly.
This large-lot, out-in-the-country phenomenon is happening even well away from ski resorts or national parks. Randy Brady, a real estate broker in Cañon City, Colo., says some of the exurbanites in his neighborhood commute 30 and 40 miles to city jobs in Colorado Springs and Pueblo. But most are retirees and even locals who commute to jobs in the state and federal prisons of Cañon City and Penrose. Brady has watched in amazement as the ranches of his youth have been chopped into 35-acre ranchettes. "It’s hard to fathom how fast it has happened," he says.
The surge of exurban development in the last decade has startled academics, environmental activists and even local governments.
Luther Propst, executive director of the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit conservation group that focuses on planning issues, sees it as one of the major threats facing the West. "Part of the challenge is that this exurban growth is being driven by some very powerful and fundamental demographic and economic forces," he explains.
The impending retirement of baby boomers adds to the urgency of the problem. "Even if you have just a regular working career in San Francisco, you are in the position to walk away with hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit from the sale of your home," says Propst. "Under the tax code, you are obligated to turn (that profit) back into housing, so you buy five to 10 to 20 acres, and build a house."
Tom Cova, a geographer at the University of Utah, has been watching this phenomenon in bucolic Grants Pass, Ore., where he grew up. Grants Pass began losing its mining, logging and paper-mill jobs 30 years ago, and they’ve been replaced by low-paying service-oriented jobs. Yet home prices and the population have been increasing rapidly. There is, he points out, a fundamental disconnect between traditional sources of wealth and this new rural living.
To get a grasp on just how swiftly the open spaces could disappear, look at a Web site created by the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Maps show development patterns in the West from 1960 to 2000, then extrapolate to 2040. Cities and suburbs expand rapidly in the coming decades, but the biggest change is in exurban development. In Colorado, for example, the maps show 10-acre developments crawling across the base of the Rocky Mountains and sweeping up toward the Continental Divide.
A December 2004 Brookings Institution report contains sobering statistics. It predicts that in the West, about 45 percent of the houses being used in 2030 will have been built since 2000. Most of this growth, says the report, will occur at the urban edge in natural or agriculture areas. Arizona, Nevada and Utah will lead the nation, with Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington also in the top 10.
If the new exurbs offer expansive living, they come at a considerable cost — and not only to the people who actually live there.
Richard Knight, a professor of wildlife conservation at Colorado State University, says exurban development takes a toll on biodiversity. Human-adapted species such as magpies, robins and raccoons thrive, while native species such as the yellow warbler are pushed out (HCN, 10/28/02: Shadow creatures). Sometimes the removal is deliberate. "What is the level of tolerance in ranchette development for prairie rattlesnakes?" asks Knight. In other instances, it’s a byproduct of human-subsidized predators, such as cats, dogs and what Knight calls "metallic carnivores" — cars and trucks (HCN, 2/7/05: Caught in the Headlights). "Fire is an absolutely essential ecological process for rangelands," he says — and the same is true for forests. "But there is zero tolerance for fire in exurban development."
Exurbanites’ clean air also comes at a cost. Exurban commuters contribute more than their fair share to air pollution. Consider Conifer. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2000, the average commute time from that area was 38 minutes, compared to 24-26 minutes from the closer-in suburbs and within Denver itself. While the air quality in many major cities has improved in recent decades, new studies show that people living close to freeways face heightened risks of cancer, asthma and other illnesses. Children are particularly at risk. There are also implications for global warming: A commuter who drives 50 miles to work — 25,000 miles a year — pumps out enough carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, to fill a Goodyear blimp.
The extensive transportation infrastructure has other impacts. Exurbia requires more miles of road per person than do the suburbs or cities. Water runs off those roads, even the gravel ones that dominate the exurban infrastructure, washing soil into streams and other waterways, harming fish and other wildlife. It also makes it more expensive to treat water for drinking, says Michelle DeLaria, the stormwater water-quality coordinator in Jefferson County.
Individual water wells and septic fields also pose problems. The foothills west of Denver, including Evergreen and Conifer, have 25,000 individual septic fields. When those septic fields are too close to water wells, it can mean trouble. Nitrate levels in groundwater in several hotspots along the Highway 285 corridor have doubled and tripled, says Russ Clayshulte, a consulting water-quality specialist in the Evergreen-Conifer area. Elsewhere in Colorado, he notes, nitrate in groundwater has caused the death of infants. Also of concern is the migration of viruses from septic fields into water supplies. New studies by the Environmental Protection Agency show that viruses can migrate hundreds of feet from their point of origin in septic fields, and remain in the soil for as long as two years.
The most dramatic problems with exurbia involve fire. This became wildly apparent in 2002, when television cameras showed thousands of people fleeing their exurban homes in Colorado, Arizona and Oregon in front of billowing clouds of smoke. The 137,000-acre Hayman Fire destroyed 132 homes in the region south of Conifer.
Firefighters have died trying to control wildfires, but the University of Utah’s Cova fears the worst is yet to come. "Sooner or later, we will have a fire going up a canyon in the opposite direction of the exit," trapping residents inside the fire, he says. "It just hasn’t happened yet."
The U.S. Forest Service has never assessed the cost of fighting and preventing fires to benefit exurban homeowners, but it is surely astronomical. Extinguishing the Hayman fire alone cost $42.2 million. While some expense is inevitable, anecdotal evidence suggests trying to prevent flames from reaching homes along the "wildland-urban interface" inflates the cost. Fires like the Hayman spur more calls for expensive thinning — also for the benefit of the exurbanites (HCN, 4/14/03: Forest thinning slows fires, increases concerns).
Brian Muller, a geographer at the University of Colorado, says that insurance companies in much of the Intermountain West have only recently increased premiums or deductibles for people living in this dangerous interface. "The basic point, from our perspective, is that until recently, homeowners did not really absorb the cost of the risk," he says. Society bears other costs, too. In the exurbs, everything is more expensive: School buses have to go farther to pick up kids; telephone and utility lines stretch to reach scattered homes; law enforcement, ambulances, building inspectors and other county officials have to travel considerable distances. The greatest single cost, however, comes with the roads, which are usually built and maintained at taxpayer expense. In Jefferson County, where Conifer is located, the average number of households per mile of road in the mountain exurban areas is 18. In the cities, it’s 59 households per mile. Partly in response to exurban commuters, the state government since 1991 has been incrementally four-laning Highway 285, at a cost to taxpayers so far of $105 million.
County government has long seen new development as a source of tax revenue, but in some places, it costs more to service exurban development than the county nets in taxes. A 2002 study by economists Roger Coupal and Andy Seidl of the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Service found that county and school district governments in Colorado spent $1.65 for every $1 in revenue received from dispersed 35-acre ranchettes. In some places, including La Plata and Jefferson counties, they found $5 in expense for every $1 in revenue. In other words, the city mice heavily subsidize the scurrying country mice.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously said that your right to swing your fist ends where the other man’s nose begins. Exurban living is smacking noses left and right. The task of planners, activists, and government officials is to control this bully as the West’s population continues to mushroom.
"You can put a lot of people in the landscape, but with less impact if you do it in certain ways," says William Travis, a geographer at the University of Colorado-Boulder. "We will have to pay a lot of attention to the patterns rather than the raw numbers."
The crucial discussion must occur in the county courthouses and state legislatures, where land-use rules and laws are written. However, in most states in the West, governments are traditionally reluctant to curb private-property rights. The right to subdivide farms and ranches into smaller ranchettes or hobby farms goes without question. In Colorado, as long as the lots are 35 acres or larger, you need no permission to subdivide. Many county governments routinely bless even smaller divisions, such as the 5- 10- and 20-acre parcels favored by the exurban hobbyist.
That mentality is starting to bend, however.
Boulder County is famous for its land-use rules. Adopted in the 1970s, they created an "urban growth boundary" around the city of Boulder, beyond which development has been conceded only grudgingly (HCN, 9/5/94: Can planning rein in a stampede?). Routt County, home of the resort town of Steamboat Springs, offers a "density bonus," approving an extra house or two if developers cluster housing and leave much of their land open. Another resort center, Summit County, uses "transferable development rights" to encourage dense development in Breckenridge and other existing population centers, while leaving the outlying areas less developed. Weld County in northeastern Colorado, one of the nation’s leading agricultural counties, has created farm zones where it allows only one house per 80 acres.
The greater cost of exurban development has raised concerns among the cities and counties in the Denver Regional Council of Governments, including Jefferson County. Bill Johnston, a planner with the agency, says the member governments have adopted broad policies to discourage leapfrog development and direct construction away from strategic open-space areas. The agency’s greatest power is steering federal funding for transportation in ways that encourage compact development.
In Colorado’s Mesa County, where the farms and orchards near Grand Junction are being nibbled away, "smart growth" advocates, developers and farmers are talking about a compromise that would concede exurban plots but within a framework of future greenbelts and bike paths. The key concept, says Grand Junction-based architect Ed Chamberlain, is to create common areas where nature is accessible to everyone. "It doesn’t have to be all behind your fence," he says.
Yet, while some county governments have become more aggressive in addressing this exurban trend, "I don’t think the response is up to the challenge ahead," says the Sonoran Institute’s Propst. He wants state legislatures to give metropolitan areas — and even smaller cities and towns — greater regional authority to control development along their fringes. As it is, developers find it all too easy to shop for the best deal among the generally more rural, understaffed and unsophisticated county governments in outlying areas. And state policies often result in municipalities competing with one another for sales-tax-generating commercial development, without regard for overall development patterns.
The larger problem may be the fact that the costs of exurban sprawl are so dispersed. Exurban living has an outsized impact, both on governments and the environment, but because the costs are spread to the public at large, and because people pay in small increments with their tax dollars and insurance premiums, they don’t see it draining their pocketbooks.
But that may change, if the cost of oil keeps climbing. The price of gasoline, after being adjusted for inflation, was actually 25 percent cheaper during much of the gung-ho 1990s than it was in 1960, according to the Department of Energy. If oil prices remain relatively low, the exurban party can be expected to continue, despite all efforts to slow it. Perhaps a small increase would push exurbanites toward smaller and more efficient cars. But if the price of oil gallops higher, some experts predict that the exurbs will wither.
The end of cheap oil does not yet loom large in the public consciousness, however. That fact was evident this year in the Colorado Legislature, as a developer tried to get legislatively delegated power to condemn land for a toll road about 25 miles east of the bustling Front Range corridor. Although the bill was killed, few expect the toll road idea to disappear. And if the road is eventually built, it will unleash a new layer of growth on Colorado’s sparsely settled high plains.
As long as gasoline is still relatively cheap, people will be willing to drive out to the edge. And as long as they are willing to drive, the edge will keep getting farther away.
One Friday evening in March, I set out from Denver at quitting time, joining the bumper-to-bumper slog. I wanted to define the outer limits of exurbia.
Leaving the beltway that encircles Denver, I joined the pack of Tahoes, Yukons and Durangos surging up Highway 285 toward Conifer, Evergreen and other exurban outposts. Taking advantage of the relatively new four lanes, we rolled past cliff faces, into the forest and on toward the sunset. Despite myself, I felt elated at getting back into the hills. I understood the draw of the exurbs.
An hour into my trip, after the highway had narrowed to two lanes, I left behind Jefferson County and crossed into Park County, one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. At the town of Bailey, a big yellow sign gleamed into the night, offering "Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco," as if I’d left the genteel exurbs behind and arrived at the wild frontier. Still, headlights glared in my rearview mirror: Yet more exurbanites, in a hurry to get home.
Finally, at the tiny hamlet of Grant, 67 miles from Denver, I stopped at a general store to ask if I was beyond the commuting frontier. To my surprise, among the postcards and potato chips, I found an exurban commuter in the flesh. Every morning, he told me, he leaves home at 4:30 a.m., driving 70 minutes to his job at an excavating company in Commerce City, a suburb northeast of Denver.
The long commute is well worth it, the man told me, drawing on a cigarette. He likes living close to nature, and Grant sits next to the South Platte River and the Pike National Forest, where pine trees sway in mountain breezes. And, he says, if mosquitoes sometimes annoy him during summer, they aren’t half as bad as in Minnesota, where he used to live.
When he first moved to metropolitan Denver, he said, he and his wife lived just a few miles from his job, but it didn’t work out. "We got along fine with our neighbors," he told me. What drove them to the fringe and this before-daylight commute, he explained, was something else. He just could not tolerate Denver’s constant traffic.
"I’m not even close to being the farthest out," he added. "There’s people commuting every day from Fairplay, and it’s another 30 miles up the highway."
Returning to Denver, I thought about the attraction of exurbia, the charm of country living. Exurbanites are not bad people. Everybody at some level wants to live next to a babbling brook set in a forest of aspen, or next to a field of corn, alfalfa or cows. Nor does any one exurban home in the mountains outside Denver, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, or in the desert near Tucson, irretrievably damage the environment or desecrate the landscape. The problem lies in the number of homes, in their accretion — like the city beyond the city that Paul Sutton saw in the nighttime lights around Denver.
Some years ago, the phrase "cows NOT condos" came into vogue. It has a clever alliteration, but condos are not the enemy. What is smothering the cows and the open spaces are the Lincoln Log homes, the Architectural Digest mansions, the staccato echoes of the Bonanza theme that still shape too many visions of the life in the West.
This vision of a landscape littered with rural estates, where everyone can live like the late Hunter S. Thompson, with a backyard large enough to fire a cannon, is bonkers. The myth that defines the Western good life in terms of Marlboro Man images cannot survive the population pressures ahead. We have to shift our focus, to make not just our cities but also our small towns livable and inviting. They need to offer pleasant man-made spaces that are also efficient and in tune with the environment. Close living quarters can become a virtue, not a detraction, if the natural world is always close at hand; even New York City has Central Park and rooftop gardens. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have to create neighborhoods that acknowledge but refuse to kowtow to automobiles.
The true frontier is in our towns and cities, where plenty of hard work remains as we figure out how to lessen our impact on the land — and on one another.
Allen Best has lived everywhere from small mountain towns of 1,000 people to his current home, a metropolitan area of 2.6 million. But he’s never lived in the countryside. He lives on a lot that is 35 feet wide.
The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:
This report was made possible with support from the EMA Foundation.
Ohio State University http://aede.osu.edu/programs/exurbs/research.htm
The Center of the American West at the University of Colorado-Boulder
www.centerwest.org and www.centerwest.org/futures/newpub/ which projects land uses in the West.
The University of Denver’s Paul C. Sutton www.geography.du.edu/sutton
The University of Utah’s Thomas J. Cova www.geog.utah.edu/faculty/?id=1
Colorado State University’s David M. Theobald www.nrel.colostate.edu/~davet
Richard Knight www.cnr.colostate.edu/frws/people/faculty/knight.html
University of Colorado’s William Travis http://spot.colorado.edu/~wtravis
The Sonoran Institute www.sonoran.org
Civic Results www.civicresults.org.