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

  • Paul Sutton, a geography professor at the University of Denver, on his deck overlooking the foothills near Conifer, Colorado.

    Kevin Molony
  • Large-lot homes in the Genesee area in the foothills west of Denver

    Kevin Moloney
  • Interstate 70 whisks commuters past snow-capped peaks, from the exurbs into Denver

    Kevin Moloney
  • Classic suburban sprawl in north Denver

    John Fielder/Lighthawk, courtesy Colorado Sprawl Action Center
  • Land Use on Colorado's Front Range, 1960-2040

    William R. Travis, David M. Theobald, Geneva W. Mixon, Thomas W. Dickinson, in Press, Western Futures: A Look into the Patterns of Land Use and Future Development in the American West, Center of the American West, University of Coilorado at Boulder, www.

Page 3

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:

- The best of both worlds

- The end of exurbia: An interview with James Howard Kunstler

- So far, Oregon land-use measure is more bark than bite

This report was made possible with support from the EMA Foundation.


Ohio State University

The Center of the American West at the University of Colorado-Boulder and which projects land uses in the West.

The University of Denver’s Paul C. Sutton

The University of Utah’s Thomas J. Cova

Colorado State University’s David M. Theobald

Richard Knight

University of Colorado’s William Travis

The Sonoran Institute

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