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Know the West

Two weeks in the West


Remember when that little shack down the road (every Western town has them - real rustic "fixer-uppers" oozing "charm," "character" and mouse feces) sold for a few hundred grand? Well, today even spanking-new McMansions in some Western burgs won't fetch that kind of money, thanks to an increasingly uncertain housing market and banks' stiffer lending practices. So developers have turned to auctions to move their merchandise. Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Cachet Homes recently auctioned off about $21 million worth of houses and condos, with some minimum bids set at less than half of the original listed prices. And in Idaho's Treasure Valley, builders put $1 million-plus luxury homes on the block.

Western states topped the rest of the country for foreclosure rates again in February. Nevada boasted the highest rate, at one in every 165 households - more than three times the national average and up 68 percent from this time last year. California was a close second, followed by Arizona in fourth place and Colorado in fifth. In Nevada, the trend has bumped up fast-track evictions that leave the unlucky renters of foreclosed homes out thousands of dollars in rent and deposit money, and with as little as a week to find somewhere else to live. Meanwhile, more folks are flocking back to renewed urban centers, and formerly fast-growing suburbs like those south of Sacramento, Calif., are beginning to empty - drawing unsavory characters and increased crime.

The housing market isn't the only thing grinding to a halt. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced a "general slowdown" in Supercenter development and canceled controversial plans to build stores in Montana's Ravalli County and Douglas, Wyo.

Even as the real estate frenzy slows, state lawmakers are wrangling over ways to rein in development. In March, Wyoming passed a law that allows counties to regulate developments larger than 35 acres, which were formerly free from local land-use codes thanks to a loophole in state law. It also requires developers to clearly disclose whether a property has water and is accessible by road.

But in Idaho, lawmakers shot down a broadly supported measure that would have extended tax credits to landowners who agreed to protect their farms and ranches from subdivision for at least 30 years. And Utah passed a law that limits citizens' ability to challenge zoning changes and controversial developments.

Attaching a "green" or "sustainable" label has become an increasingly popular - and increasingly pilloried - way to put a shine on such projects. Those monikers drew more than just snide comments in early March, when "ecoterrorists" in Snohomish County, Wash., torched four large, energy-efficient luxury homes built with recycled materials and landscaped with native plants. A banner left at the scene ("Built Green? Nope Black!") credited the arson to ELF, or the Earth Liberation Front, but nearby neighbors had also panned the development. In Red Lodge, Mont., however, a 400-unit "sustainable" subdivision set to break ground this spring - complete with three miles of trails, 20 acres of public parks, and more modestly sized houses - has yet to rile town tempers even though it could boost the local population (currently 2,300) by up to 1,000 people.

Perhaps the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should work on its own "green" image. EPA head honcho Stephen Johnson is drawing fire from enviros, federal lawmakers and even his own advisors and colleagues for the agency's weak stance on air quality. Earlier in the month, the Senate grilled Johnson about the EPA's failure to respond to a Supreme Court directive to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the agency's "inappropriate" efforts to pressure states to reject tougher mercury regulations. And in late February, the bosses of four major unions representing 10,000 EPA scientists and specialists wrote a letter complaining that Johnson's decisions favor industry and political interests over scientific integrity and the advice of agency experts. Johnson most recently approved new federal ozone regulations that are stricter than previous limits but still fall short of his science advisors' recommendations for protecting public health, wildlife, parks and farmland. The decision came after direct intervention by President George W. Bush, according to documents released by the EPA.

But the weaker-than-recommended rules won't make things any easier for growing Western cities and counties, many of which already struggle to meet the old ozone standard. Cleaning up the air on Utah's booming Wasatch Front, on Colorado's Front Range, in Idaho's Treasure Valley, in the urban areas surrounding Phoenix, Ariz., and Las Vegas, Nev., and in most of Central and Southern California will be a daunting task, according to air-quality officials in those states.

Congresspeople under a cloud

A number of Western lawmakers have topped the scandal sheets in the past year. Among those not pictured are Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. (stepping down in 2009), Rep. Heather Wilson, R.-N.M., and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., all of whom reportedly made calls attempting to pressure U.S. attorneys. Former Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., lost his Senate seat to a Democrat while under investigation for his connection to jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but no charges have resulted. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., is now in prison for bribery, conspiracy and tax evasion. Democratic lawmakers in other parts of the country are under scrutiny for corruption, but none have turned up in the West (yet).