Eleven Brave Souls
by Seth Cagin
Sep 02, 2009 | 1106 views | 14 14 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print

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.
Comments-icon Post a Comment
cart before horse
September 05, 2009
Sorry, "once again" but you're not making sense. You act as if by magic if only the Town of Telluride was three times as big (2500 people on the vf) we'd all be fat and happy and the only thing that's stopping your vision is onerous zoning. However, you go on to admit that there are lots of for-sale properties around here, so clearly lack of people isn't due to not having enough trophy homes or luxury condos on the vf. Maybe your vision was to have subsidized affordable housing on the vf, but obviously that wasn't Blue's vision.

To realize the city you dream of, you'd definitely need a diversified economy and probably easier access. The good news is that your model is available. Vail has easier access, and low and behold--it's bigger.
Once again
September 05, 2009
If people are no longer investing, here what does downsizing have do with anything?

If places can be too big they can also be too small. Telluride is too small to create an economy that is vibrant and sustainable.

It's not like there's nothing for sale here.

No we have more for sale here than ever before in our history. In fact, we have a higher percentage of residential property listed for sale here than in any other resort in the country.

What is your argument, then?

Telluride is too small, hard to get to, and just not that special when you factor out the pretty face. It's real estate is over-priced and there is a huge over-supply of it. The economy is too dependent on real estate sales, construction and development and is not diversified enough to withstand a real estate/construction crash. The glory years of buying cheap and selling high are over and now only rich people can afford to move here an own unless the property is deed restricted and Telluride's workforce housing program is inadequate, under-funded and a failure since a resale cap rate was not implemented to keep homes affordable for future owners. There was a plan to have a vibrant and sustainable economy, but the numbers were down-zoned by 50% or more creating a non-competitive environment where limited supply created artificially high prices and a limited economic base and mediocrity in all facets of our culture.

If we had turned the Valley Floor into Mt. Village somehow that would have made things less elite and more vibrant?

If you do not have a vibrant and sustainable economy you will not be in control of future growth because you will have no choices when you are hit with a national economic crisis like the one we are in now. Environmental degradation comes from lack of a vibrant and sustainable economy not because of it. If people and families are starving and there are no jobs and people are losing their homes and going broke--people will vote for coal mines, uranium mills, and about anything else. Elitism is when people development a "closed system" where only they can succeed. Such systems normally benefit the wealthy or in our case also those locals that were fortunate enough to get here early, buy real estate at ten cents on the dollar compared to today, live off the profits and then shut the door to keep out competition. Closed system are closed to people that do not qualify, like country clubs, fraternal organizations like Skull and Bones aka George W. Bush at Harvard and rich people never seem to get black-balled. If the VF had been developed according to the Plan there would have been 2500 people or about 300 residential units and a 150 room destination resort hotel on the VF with a huge intercept parking lot to handle the largest festival or Xmas ski crowd and a gondola to connect to the MV and an electric train to connect to the town and town park. The economic generation of the development would have amounted to a Billions dollars and the economic engine over years would have made a huge difference in having a vibrant and sustainable economy.

Clearly you haven't been to the MV lately.

Yes I have. I am concerned that the ski resort will survive, that the Peaks will open and stabilize, that the gondola will continue to be funded, that the real estate market will stop going down in both activity and price, that the affordable housing will be open this winter, and that community leaders will work together to respond to the lack of vibrancy and sustainability in their economy. The MV was designed to be an economic hub equal to Telluride, but the down-zonings that occurred made is so that there are just too few people to make it work, let alone see that it has a vibrant and sustainable economy.

These were some good questions, let's keep going. Maybe we can come up with a dialog that will help both candidates and voters in the upcoming Telluride town elections.
huh ?
September 04, 2009
If people are no longer investing here, what does downsizing have do with anything? It's not like there's nothing for sale here. What is your argument, then? If we had turned the Valley Floor into Mt. Village somehow that would have made things less elite and more vibrant? Clearly you haven't been to the MV lately.
Once again...
September 04, 2009
If a community has a vibrant and sustainable community it can control and be the master of its fate.

Without a vibrant and sustainable economy, humans seem to always choose to destroy the environment, provide poor health and human services, exploit cheap labor sources and provide limited housing choices for the working class.

The examples of this phenomenon are endless both historically and specifically.

Telluride's big lie is that we saved and downzoned for the good of the community (r.e. the people that live here).

But it appears to have just been elitism.

September 04, 2009
It was developed. The difference is the town didn't get stuck with the cost of maintaining it.
September 03, 2009
real-ity: was Idarado NOT developed??? Oh, I haven't noticed.... And I thought it was just developed badly.... Silly me.
September 03, 2009
Earth to Seth and the other pro-growthers: People aren't buying real estate anymore. Had we developed Idarado and the Valley Floor like you wanted to, the town would just be stuck with all the infrastructure costs for moribund projects. Growth for growth's sake just ain't happening anymore. Period.
FaceOnMars (nli)
September 03, 2009
Once again: I'm not sure how to address your comment other than to say, thank god we're not on the same trajectory as Aspen! I have a 3 day tolerance for visiting that town, regardless of the adjectives you've used to describe some of the "inhabitants". Sure there are circles of the uber rich, a seasonal transient work force who lives in Aspen/Snowmass, a daily commuting workforce from downvalley, as well as a few hold-outs from the 70's ... but it's hardly the epitome of a tight knit community. On the contrary, it's very disjointed & fragmented.

While I think Seth's article covers the primary economic perspectives well, I believe there's an important underlying question which wasn't explicitly addressed regarding how growth affects the "fabric of our community".

What I find interesting is that some people will vote to encourage government to "plan growth", which will invariably pull apart some aspect of existing ties which bind people together at a human level. Sorry, more cash does not equate better communal relations. It's kind of akin to a father working until 8am - 10pm for 7 days a week under the auspices of "giving his children more" ... yet it is his time which they really need.
September 03, 2009
I think we should stop calling them no-growthers and start calling them shrinkers.
Once again
September 03, 2009
It would appear that creating a vibrant and sustainable economy for Telluride is no longer in the cards.

Telluride down-zoned and down-zoned until now, it is just plain too small to be economically viable.

The only way that Telluride can work economically would be for it to grow--and thanks to the "no-growthers" we have no place left to grow.

Aspen in the early 80's found themselves in a similar situation and a group of community leaders agreed to band together to save the place before it was too late.

The plan they developed was to condemn several square blocks of ole' "sacred" Ma & Pa ski chalets, bull doze them and build a world class destination, convention resort hotel that would assure competitiveness with other resorts of the world including beach front resorts and establish a year round sustainable economy and send the message that Aspen was open for business.

The ballot issue passed and Aspen built the Ritz-Carlton and again the rest is history and now Aspen has a year-round vibrant and sustainable economy and is arguably the best ski resort in the world and certainly one of the most artistic, interesting, diverse, innovative and scholarly of any community in the world.
how do you do it?
September 03, 2009
the real estate/development economy has collapsed.... therefore we should provide more incentives to the real/estate development economy. Simply brilliant, Seth.
vaughan davidson
September 03, 2009
an outstanding timely ripe article ! bravo watch !
September 03, 2009

There is a third side to all of this..the heretofore uninterested resident who needs to come to the table..the big middle side..since the two forces that you describe are really two small groups of very powerful special interests..

Nothing will change in this election..whichever side wins will simply exact its punishment er, I mean policy changes and we will continue slowly moving nowhere..

What is needed to right the ship here in Telluride is for the big middle to come out and demand value for its vote (since most of the tax base is either sales or real estate transactions by tourists or property buyers)..

This giant will only awaken when we have real collapse...the only real collapse that I have seen so far is in real estate brokerage employment..property values are just now coming down to market..and many by foreclosure..the real estate collapse will occur when the banks flip foreclosed properties quickly and at 60% of the appraised value..and finally, real collapse will occur when the town services really stop being provided...ie snow removal..

Until then, this election is really about re-arranging seats on the titanic..Telluride is lumbering along, losing blood and its balance..

It wont be fixed until town services collapse..which will occur since Old Hats and Tricks is out of both (and he will lose his additional sales tax increase by a wide margin)..

Until then we all need to get some skiing and hiking in...like the US in general and Telluride specifically nothing good will come until the great middle class wakes up and takes its place at the head of the table..

Seth-great article!
concerned chef
September 03, 2009

I hope the reason there have been so few comments, is because it is accurate and sobering.