Policies of the past persist in county’s new land use code
Compare Pitkin County to other parts of the country where big-box development and strip malls fill almost every inch of open land, it becomes clear that people here have made difficult choices to limit development.During the last few months, the future of Pitkin County has been becoming official in all sorts of confusing jargon and endless meetings that surround the rewrite of the land use code. Pitkin County has had one of the most restrictive codes in the nation since the mid-1970s, preserving some of the rural quality of Pitkin County.”Drive to Rifle or to Denver and observe the change, it’s really subtle, but it’s really there,” said Dwight Shellman, a Pitkin County commissioner from 1972 to 1976. “It’s the same kind of ecosystem between here and Rifle, here and Eagle. What’s happening in all the other places is that all the open land is being subdivided, typically for higher-cost housing, but also for strip malls, pavement, apartment buildings. It will all be consumed.”Shellman is part of what a current member of the Planning and Zoning Commission called the “Shellman-Edwards-Kinsley Era,” for three county commissioners in the 1970s who made decisions that enabled Pitkin County to avoid the worst of modern American development patterns.”All you have to do is leave the county and it’s plainly visible,” said County Commissioner, Michael Owsley. “It’s demonstrated visibly. They downzoned the valley. They took enormous abuse and personal attacks, but they did it and they changed Pitkin County forever. Really all we’re doing is furthering that. They changed it down to the roots.”The foundation of the current land use code uses many of the ideas that evolved in the 1970s. The main focus of the code is to preserve the rural character of the county and things like including local input as a foundation of the code continues today.”Caucus groups describe what they want in their community,” said Paul Rudnick, a current member of the Planning and Zoning Commission. Caucus groups form around neighborhoods and come up with a master plan for their own areas. “They were uniform in their desire to limit the density and intensity of development, preserve open space and provide for best possible sighting of new development.”As anti-sprawl advocates, Shellman, Joe Edwards and Michael Kinsley wanted Pitkin County to have human development that interacted well with natural surroundings. So they looked to limit and regulate growth. “That was what was intended,” Shellman said. “Pitkin County would not look like everywhere else, where all the available land would be subdivided into strip malls, pavement and houses.”They enacted things like Pitkin County’s sign ordinance, which many consider a success. By making it difficult to build large or illuminated signs, the county has escaped the excess signs plaguing many communities. “We’ve set a tone in the valley,” Shellman said. “The land use code is simply a part of that.”Kinsley, a commissioner from 1975 to 1985, said that their main methods for managing growth were to pay attention to quantity, configuration and rate. In order to preserve open space they disallowed development in certain areas and required that units be clustered. As well, the growth management quota system is used to limit the pace with which people can build, either new development or additions to existing structures.The growth management quota system and other regulatory practices continue to be the foundation for smart growth in the county. “That’s a profound departure from what many communities were doing,” Kinsley said. “We wanted to be really tough about what got built and sure that what got built was in tune with the community.”One concern of theirs was that increased regulation would result in rising property values, making it difficult for working people to live in the area. “Some people say we are diminishing the value of their property by increasing restrictiveness and I would say the opposite,” Rudnick said. “That’s been the experience of the county up to now.”With fewer houses and more difficulty building, simple supply and demand results in increased values. Further, the things that are difficult to assess, such as open space for running trails, beautiful views and truly rural areas increase the value of a place as a whole. “The contrary evidence is that when one looks at the Eagle and Gore valleys where there were no constraints until recently, and even those are small,” Kinsley said. “Prices are equally unaffordable there. The cause is what might be called non price-sensitive demand, people that can pay virtually anything.”Kinsley, Shellman and Edwards put in place a good deal of regulations that have had a significant affect today. “It’s our responsibility to follow in their footsteps,” said Planning and Zoning Commission member Mirte Mallory. “We want people generations from now to applaud our decisions today. People don’t like change and they don’t like restrictions, but they’re grateful in hindsight.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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