The growth game

"Durango must be the fastest growing city in the state right now," she says, echoing a widespread feeling.

Later in the week, I pass another bike commuter on my way to work. He directs my eyes to the slowly moving stream of traffic on nearby North Main Avenue and sarcastically says, "Don't you wish we were in the middle of that mess. What's happening to Durango?"

At a recent party, the all-too-familiar, "Durango has changed so much even in the last five years," is brought up.

And in a checkout line at the supermarket, I overhear the words "River Trails Ranch." I hear them again later waiting in line for coffee.

Durango is abuzz with the growth bug these days and local residents are doing their best to make sense of it. However, the buzz has approached the level of a roar lately and is beginning to push people over the edge.

To state the obvious, River Trails Ranch with its 800 units is generating the most action right now. On one side, a development team makes claims that its plan is the only way of saving life as we know it in Durango. On the other, critics charge that by marring the Animas Valley, River Trails Ranch will destroy Durango's very soul. Meanwhile, the next controversy is not far behind, as the Southern Ute Indian Tribe's proposal for 2,500 new homes in Grandview patiently waits its turn to run the gauntlet. Up next: Ewing Mesa's pitch for as many as 2,000 more units.

A little basic math shows that if these major projects go forward, along with a host of smaller ones, Durango will roughly double in size. At the same time, ground is being broken all over La Plata County, and a giant project is moving forward up the valley at Durango Mountain Resort. It's no surprise that panic is filling the area. The near-term future is more than a little overwhelming.

Somehow, I've been immersed in this same state of panic for the last 15 years. In three different mountain towns, I've watched the same cycle repeat itself. Regardless of attempts at master planning, the loop continues with monotonous regularity. Second homes and inflated prices replace classic, mountain communities. Efforts to control growth fall desperately short. Those who don't luck out and buy in early are either squeezed out or spend the rest of their lives in the rental market. Old homes are fixed up or scrapped. New developments trying to replicate the old community spring up along the edges. And the net effect is high price tags and homes where the lights are out for all but a couple months during the year.

It's no secret that we're witnessing this trend right now. Workers are being pinched out of town. Employers are being pinched by the absence of workers. And, big city wallets are eagerly moving in and filling the vacancies.

Nearly all of the current development proposals have seized on this disturbing trend and offered to remedy it. However, the fact remains that a doubling of Durango is under way. The mystique of New Urbanism and walkable communities does little to counteract twice the number of cars, twice the amount of pollution, twice the water and natural resource consumption and twice the number of people looking for jobs in an already strapped economy.

Over the last 15 years, I've repeatedly heard the accusation that anyone who questions growth is just trying to close the door behind him. The charge correctly reminds people that most of us are transplants from somewhere else. In my experience, closing the door on growth usually backfires and a reasonable amount of growth is necessary for the continued health of a community.

But this is not simply about closing the door on growth. What we are now witnessing is far from reasonable growth. The panicked craze gripping Durango is clear evidence.

- Will Sands




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