Can there really be eleven residents of Telluride who know the way out of our economic meltdown?
One thing is certain: while all eleven candidates for four seats on the Telluride Town Council may see the same crisis, the sharp economic downturn brought on by the real- estate crash, they very likely see it from one of two broadly different perspectives.
From any perspective it’s easy to see that the town faces a budget crisis thanks to the collapse of real-estate transfer taxes. Fees from development are also dramatically off. Vacancies mount on main street, and property values have taken a hit. Having feasted on a real-estate boom now gone bust, we find ourselves to be a tourist town with precious few tourists. We have spent most of the last two decades building the infrastructure for a gilded age that is likely past. No place lived more on the bubble than Telluride, and few places are less equipped to recover from the Great Recession.
Our community is being decimated.
How, then, will we dig out?
Most of the candidates running for four vacancies on council have enough of a public record that we can infer where they fall on the great dividing line of Telluride politics.
Broadly, there are those who believe the problem has been too much growth, period. Smaller is always better, by definition. Development never pays its own way so the more exactions you can get from it the better – hopefully, enough exactions to stop it cold. Sustainability means protection of open space first and foremost, because it limits development. Even affordable housing has mostly adverse impacts. Give a developer an inch and he’ll take a mile. No negotiated development plan is ever good enough to approve; any such proposal can easily be picked apart as a sell-out of the public interest. Downzoning is always good and density is always bad. We have seen the enemy – the vulgar overdevelopment of other ski towns in the Rockies – and we will fight it at all costs.
On the other side there are those who believe our growth has been out of balance, and our failure has been a refusal to accept negotiated public/private partnerships to meet community objectives. This side believes we can engineer a more sustainable community by providing incentives for desirable development, including development that mitigates its impacts by creating long-term employment or other public benefits like affordable housing, open space, cultural or recreational amenities, and economic diversity. Absent good planning and meaningful incentives, development will largely occur under existing zoning by right. Very few variances will be sought or granted. That means second homes and condos and little else will be built, as long as the demand is strong. That may seem OK until demand collapses, as it has now, and we find that we have virtually no economy.
These two sides have waged pitched battles over the years. The “let’s plan it” faction won 20 years ago when the Lawson Hill PUD was narrowly approved. (Before that there were two other key approvals: Mountain Village and the airport.) Since then, the “no growth is good growth” side has won virtually every time, with just a few exceptions in Mountain Village (the Capella, the ski area expansion). Despite the no-growther victories, we’ve hardly seen “no growth” as a result. What we’ve seen is rampant growth that has given us a long run of prosperity but that both sides would probably agree has not been optimal, consisting as it does almost entirely of second homes that sit empty most of the year. We could all agree, probably, that a community that is overly dominated by second homes isn’t much of a community at all.
If you think we’ve done as well as could be expected under global pressures that are beyond our local control, you’re probably a “no growther.” You may believe we are suffering the inevitable consequences of approvals that should never have been granted, and that the region would have been better off without the airport, Mountain Village, Lawson Hill, or an expanded ski area, all of which helped fuel the real-estate boom. From this perspective, the current crisis only proves the argument: Development has clearly failed us.
If you think we have missed a lot of opportunities and could have done a lot better, you’re probably a “planned growth” kind of person. You may believe the current crisis has been exacerbated not nearly so much by what we have done, but by what we have failed to do. From this perspective, again, the current crisis only proves the argument: Look at what poor planning has brought us!
As a veteran of many of these battles, I have come to the conclusion that the two perspectives can’t be reconciled. We just see things too differently.
These incompatible worldviews dictate how we remember history, how we approach the problem of sustainability in a mountain resort, and how we respond to the present crisis.
Is it “reality” to say that the bubble has burst and we must therefore adapt to being smaller and be prepared to get by with less, and that this is all to the good? This is self-evident, a no-growther might argue, because neither the planet nor our local region can tolerate more of the same.
Or is it “reality” to say we need to get serious, finally, now that the bubble has burst, about creating a sustainable, balanced economy, with a healthy tourism sector, so that we are not so highly dependent on second home development and sales. Obviously, a planner would insist, because without a functioning economy there can be no sustainable community.
While there is surely truth in both of these arguments, each side in such a polarized debate will tend to see the other side as fundamentally misguided. How could it be otherwise when one side believes we need to shrink out way out of the crisis while the other side believes we need to thoughtfully grow our way out of it and the only point of consensus is that doing nothing is not a sensible option?
My guess is that the eleven candidates for council will all talk about responding to the collapse of the local economy with a sense of “realism,” but by “realism,” they won’t mean the same thing. Some may emphasize cutting the town budget and doing less and “living within our means.” Others will focus on a need for economic diversification and balance and less reliance on real estate.
Anyone who’s been around awhile will hear the dog whistles loud and clear, and will know exactly where the candidates stand.
Given the depth of the crisis, neither side will be able to offer convincing answers, because while there is no clear path to sustainable contraction there is also no clear path toward sustainable growth. This is especially true in a community as polarized as Telluride, where any tentative step in either direction will meet passionate resistance from the other side. And so we may end up doing nothing.
Am I a pessimist? Or a realist?
Perhaps I’m an optimist, because I give all credit to the candidates who step into this quagmire, regardless of their worldview. Whoever is elected will have their work cut out for them.