When the Big Issues Are Just Too Big to Think About
by Seth Cagin
Jan 11, 2010 | 2040 views | 22 22 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
LOCAL PERSPECTIVE

One possibility is that I’ve covered too many meetings and am burned out on the minutiae. Maybe that’s even the likeliest and best explanation.

But I’ve got to ask: Did the Telluride Town Council really need to spend the better part of an hour leaning in to the details of what struck me as a minor zoning change at its meeting last week? And do they really need to devote another hour or so to the same matter when it comes up for consideration on second, and final, reading at their next meeting, as they indicated they will by going on a site walk?

I mean, isn’t the town in an economic crisis? Or something that is not good, whatever you call it? Wouldn’t you think our elected town officials have some bigger issues to be grappling with?

Some background. I covered last week’s council meeting because Karen James, who usually covers the beat, was out of town. It used to be my beat. For more years than I care to count.

Many of the councilmembers were newly elected.

So I’m old in my job and they are new in theirs and maybe that’s all you need to know to account for my bad attitude. I’ve been there and done that a whole bunch of times and they haven’t, so I’m jaded and they still have a deep interest in every last detail of governance.

At issue was a minor zoning change recommended for approval by council, without any notable dissent, by both of the town’s lower planning boards, the Telluride Planning and Zoning Commission and the Historic and Architectural Review Commission. The question: should a parcel on the south hillside, in the woods immediately east of the bottom of Lift 8, be rezoned so that it receives the same treatment as most of the developable land on the north hillside? In short, should the town permit development on the site to conform not to the town’s historic grid, as is required elsewhere, but to the topography? The owner is proposing to build a triplex on the lot.

You might have listened to the debate and been pleased that Telluride has a council so dedicated, so willing, and so eager to delve into the minute details. The town, after all, is the sum of all its decisions.

Or you might wonder, as I did, why somebody on council didn’t pipe up and say, “Hey, can’t we simply follow the lower boards’ recommendation on this one? I mean, I’m not hearing any dissent or objections. Can’t we just let the lower boards deal with the details? So that we can spend our time on something that might really make a difference to our future?”

So maybe I’m a curmudgeon. (OK, I am a curmudgeon, but that’s another subject.)

But here’s the deal. It won’t make one bit of difference to our future, in any large sense, whether the triplex, if it is built, is allowed some flexibility in how it fits on its parcel. In fact, you might have thought, given the town’s dire financial straits, that council would be eager to see the triplex break ground, generating some building fees and employment and making it just a little easier to balance the town budget.

I’m thinking about vacancies on main street; a crumbling highway leading into town, not to mention a crumbling main street; recent questions about the effectiveness of the air guarantee program; a new (it seems) realization that we are a visitor-based economy with too few visitors, and exactly what are we going to do about that little problem?

But, of course, this is probably the true explanation as to why council would rather deal with a minor zoning matter than with the more weighty matters that are all too self-evident: Because they can get their arms around it. They can make sense of it. They can actually exercise some influence over it. By comparison, not one of them individually nor all of them collectively really know how to turn the town’s economy around or make it sustainable. If they were to really try to dig into that problem, they’d get frustrated fast. They’d surely argue among themselves. If it became a community-wide debate, it would get ugly, since we do not have a shared definition of sustainability. In fact, we have radically different understandings of the term, and thus different visions of the future.

So it makes perfect sense that instead of seeking consensus on a course of action that might attempt to address the real problems we face, council busies itself by rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. As a community, we’ve hit the economic iceberg and are taking on water. Nobody can really do anything to stop it and not everyone can fit into the lifeboats. In fact, given the weakened state of the community, it’s pretty much every man for himself, with those with the most means the likeliest to survive.

Meanwhile, you might at least take some comfort in knowing that the triplex by Lift 8, if it is actually built, will have been very closely vetted.



Comments
(22)
Comments-icon Post a Comment
THCPA
|
January 14, 2010
Conspiratorial?

Did you watch the Commission....riveting...and damning to the crooks..

Geithner and Paulson looked after their buddies over at Goldman on a 24/7 basis...that buddy is a conspiracy...two people act in concert to harm another...ie..many people acted to line their pockets while Bush and then Obama let them...

It would be ok with me if we had the money to burn..but we dont..either do our kids..to whom we will leave our debt..

This, bud, was a crime...pure and simple.

So What
|
January 14, 2010
TCHPA-

Partly through my words we've spun well off topic here. I disagree with you completely and think your is a simplistic, conspiratorial view of things.

Suggest you watch the current FInancial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings and read Too Big to Fail.

Last post.

Cheers
thcpa
|
January 14, 2010
So What-

I have enjoyed your posts for their clarity...but if your neighbor lights their house on fire repeatedly (our banking system) then it is best to let it burn...Citibank has been bailed out by the US govt 4 times in 30 years...time for that bank to burn to the ground..

Cheers.

Then you have the interesting case of the sluts at Goldman Sachs...they create this paper which they sell to AIG and then they short it and force AIG into a liquidity crisis based on mark to market contract terms..then the US bails out AIG in full...and Goldman walks away with more than 100 billion dollars financed by the full faith and credit of our country...

Not only should they be allowed to burn but the people should tar and feather them...

But back to your main point...should we have bailed out these mid grade students disguised as intelligent bankers..NFW...as Volcker said two weeks ago..there is not one scintilla of evidence that any of the investment banks have added anything to our GNP...they are all just whores...feeding on our kids faith and credit..
So What
|
January 14, 2010
Face:

This is where we disagree completely -- at national, really worldwide, level. In a liquidity/debt crises/panic it is essential to recapitalize the system and break the back of the viscious downward spiral of asset values begetting further spiral, etc. That's what TARP and other things did. Did it put a lot of money into institutions that didn't deserve it, yes. Did the government itself scare the bejesus out of everyone in the process, yes. Was in necessary to stop a wholesale run on the system leading to an outright depression, yes. The alternative, as you propose, is what Andrew Mellon as Treasury Secretary said in the beginning of the depression "liquidate the banks, liquidate the homeowners, liquidate the farmers and let the strong pick up the pieces" [paraphrase].

To use Warren Buffett's analogy, if your neighbor lights his house on fire while smoking in bed do you still call the fire department, yes. It the very reason the Federal Reserve was created.

This systemic response is different to me than the lcoal process of purging of some of the bubble excess/unproductive use of resources locally in favor of stronger, more productive replacements. To put it more concretely, if some fluff stores go out of businesses and over priced restaurants go under and are replaced by cheaper places that care more about their customers, too bad. If the grocery store goes out of business then we have a problem.

Being a glass half full guy, I think we're going to snap back stronger than people think albeit over a long period. I do not think there is going to be a second massive collapse or long term stagnation. It might look like it for a couple of years but we have a pretty darn resilient system and having started two sucessful businesses in the midst of strong recessions it's a great time to create something new as we're seeing locally already.

Cheers.

FaceOnMars (nli)
|
January 14, 2010
So What: you make some excellent points. I do agree very much with your section "c" in that some pain is necessary to ultimately emerge with a much stronger economic foundation.

Unfortunately, this principle was not followed with respect to the federal government & the lending industry on a national scale ... which was deemed "too big to fail" and was essentially propped up via an artificial infusion of capital. Regardless of the stronger foundation we might ultimately reside upon locally, it may very well be trumped by a second massive collapse or simply a puttering stagnation as a result of never having allowed the larger system to recover in a more natural and sustainable manner.
So What
|
January 14, 2010
....nor am I a libertarian

Having been deeply involved in business and major non-profits. locally and nationally, and attempting to have some input to government processeses I'd characterize it more as realism than libertarianism. A libertarian would say eliminate ALL of the social services, safety nets, environmental protection, government regulation, affordable housing, etc. That isn't my view at all.

Say What?
|
January 14, 2010
Thanks for explaining it guys. It's Libertarianism, pure and simple.
So What
|
January 14, 2010
a) to clarify, I'm trapped down here in Valley, comments did not pertain to handsome, trim, full haired TMV folks and if it weren't so hard to get to when drunk or so damn expensive taxwise I'd be up there in a shot.

b) I am not saying it is morally wrong to sit down and try to work on economic development. However my gut belief is that it will come to naught and frankly the money and time could better be spent elsewhere like on the basic role of government. Having lived in many communities and started and run many businesses my observation is that economic development zones/offices/etc tend to in the end be useless. They tend to run after the fashionable thing of the moment, waste huge amouts of money and time, employ people who don't really have a clue about how to run a business and basically don't accomplish anything. More importantly their efforts are too little too late. Worse, they divert time, energy and money from the basics of running the place and become self perpetuating, growing drains on financial resources better deployed elsewhere or not at all.

Where was our collective thinking a few years ago when things were booming? Why weren't we socking away money in a rainy day fund to be used when the cycle turned? Instead we built/bought every toy we could and now worry about having money to maintain roads/plow streets/etc.

We have lots of buzzwords flying around "sustainability", "community vision", "shared values", "green economy", "community diversity", etc. and it is all a bunch of fluff. Go look back at the history of community visioning, sustainability reports, etc. here. What you will find is multi hundred page reports, often written by expensive consultants, full of the buzzwords of that day, that are tossed in a drawer and never looked at again. I know, I've sat through them from my earliest days here earnestly adding to the effort. The latest version is a bunch of people running around talking about us being a green demonstration community that will set an example for everyone else and a bunch of other pipe dreams.

We have this hubris here that somehow we matter to the outside world and we don't. We aren't any sort of shining beacon to others. We are a tiny little tourist town in the middle of the mountains with less population than you'd find in one block of a major city and generating less "carbon" in a year than one morning's commute in LA or Denver. Sure it's a nifty place to live and beautiful and lots of people would like to do so but that doesn't make us some shining light. We want to blow scads of money on environmental measures that in the end would do less good than simply making sure our forest is maintained and planting a couple of hundred trees around town.

We think that we can create a process that counters huge economic/social trends well out of our control and I doubt we can though bless 'em for trying.

I'd rather have my government officials making sure taxes are kept at a reasonable level, government created cost burdens and red tape are kept to a minimum level needed commensurate with protecting our community/environment/etc and making sure things that kill people (eg, Coronet Creek and other stuff) are taken care of. Most of all I'd like them to be rational about creating ever more burdensome and expensive regulations that don't really solve a problem but sure sound fashionable yet they only once again ratchet up the cost of living/doing business here.

I'd also like to seem them stop creating problems that they then have to come up with expensive solutions to solve. To wit, we scream about the need for affordable housing yet the very reason we need this is that we've locked off huge portions of our land from ever being developed. I know a lot of people will start screaming but it is the truth. We are a bunch of egotistical boomers, many with trustfunds of one sort or another whether self-created or from grandaddy or spouses' granddaddy's, who want a pretty place to live and we've set the rules up to make sure that happens. The result of this is many people can't afford to live here and, really, isn't that the way we want it? This is not to say we should "rape the environment" or set up trailer parks on the Valley Floor but simply to call out a reality of our Valley.

In the end, while very nice earnest people, I doubt that many of the people invloved have a clue as to what it takes to fight what is a world wide downturn brought on by a debt fueled boom that we will only recover from as part of an economic process of resource rationalization, balance sheet repair (nationally and personally) and redirection towards more productive uses. Few if any of the participants have any track record of creating "sustainable" anythings other than careers dependent on government or non profit income. To put it bluntly, what happens in the Phoenix, LA, Chicago, Dallas real estate markets and their and the national economy has many orders of magnitude more impact on our future than any amount of "collective visioning" will.

A sustainable community is one that has a vibrant private sector employing people at living wages. A vibrant sustainable private sector is made up of organizations that take in more money than they spend on expenses and capital improvements. They make that money by attracting and retaining customers. In our case, because of such a tiny local market, we have to bring those customers in from the outside world. It is not a "visioned" place full of government sponsored ideas or non-profits like a "Telluride University." Those non-profit activities depend on the kidness of strangers' money which is fickle and for which many other places are competing.

To reiterate a previous point; our competitive advantage is our natural resources/recreational opportunity, that's what we have to sell either to visitors or future residents. Anything else is just a diversion and waste of time. Our competitive disadvantage is our lack of space, unwillingness to tolerant anything that impacts how pretty it is, and incredibly high cost of living which is partially self created. Ergo, we will tend to always be a place that caters to the customer who can pay our steep rates for access to our resources and residents who have/or continue to make, their money elsewhere and spend it here.

c) being a glass half full type of guy I have to wonder if the downturn doesn't have a silver lining. as noted before a lot of marginal players are being washed out, rents are falling, housing prices are falling. all this opens the way naturally to a more solid economy in the long run, eg, new creative businesses already springing up, new residents and second home owners who can really afford to be here for the long term. is it painful to watch, yes, are people getting hurt in the process, yes. but, when did it become accepted "vision" that no can ever undergo any pain at all for the results of their poor decisions?

Again, more power to those that have the time and energy to meet and cogitate on this, go for it. This observer holds little hope for these activities but is prepared to be pleasantly suprised and my disbelief that it will amount to much is practical, not moral.

PS: and no I'm not a republican
FaceOnMars (nli)
|
January 14, 2010
SayWhat: why does the fact that there exists an idealogical difference regarding the role of government's involvement in the free market bother you so much? For that matter, why does it upset you that some feel that government ought to be limited to only establishing the borders of "playing field" and act only as "referee"?

I suppose if we have perpetual unanimous consent to allow the government to get involved, then everything would be OK ... but this isn't a Kibbutz or any other "ideal functional socialistic society". On the contrary, it's a democratic & capitalistic system which requires that the deck ought not be stacked. You can throw around the words "collectively", "common good", "benefit for all", etc. all you want .... but in REALITY that is NOT how it works. When the government is enlisted to assist an entity (or sector), it is inevitable that another entity or sector will be susceptible to suffer directly or indirectly. Most people or business ventures "enter the game" under the auspices of a free market & assume the "rules won't be made up as we go along". This only touches the surface.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to you that there are differing perspectives in the Telluride area. Some residents abhor the fact that there are huge steel posts with giant cables connecting them in the forests. Being and avid snowboarder who likes to ride the lifts, I can easily overlook this; however, I know some who don't ... and simply view it as large scale pollution. If you disagree and make the statement that "Telluride is a ski town", I would offer that such a claim is a fundamentalist belief.
Say What?
|
January 14, 2010
I just don't get it why some people persist in thinking it's improper for us, collectively, through our local government, to try to improve our circumstances through economic planning and/or development. Will someone explain it to me? It's like every time there's any talk of the economy, it's morally WRONG or somehow misguided if we think the government can do anything about it. Why is that? Where does this belief come from? It seems like a fundamentalist belief to me, and not rational. Cities and towns all over the country improve their main streets, create incentive zones, zone for specific purposes, form economic development offices. Why is this sort of activity SO WRONG in Telluride? Please explain?????

Gotta love the
|
January 14, 2010
wisdom here in Tride..

Local marginal players inebriated on debt...

Balding, muddled aging boomers...

Such truth.

One comment..TMV govenment appears to be the adults in the government game here in these parts..(with the exception of that one landscaper dude who uses his position for his benefit) and ToT govt is always a bit of a joke..not just council but mgt as well.

FaceOnMars (nli)
|
January 14, 2010
theotherside: I'm assuming "we need to bail ourselves out and stop looking to others for help" pertains to such entities as Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, etc.?=
theotherside
|
January 13, 2010
Hey - So What. As an observer of the Mountain Village government, while they may not have "seen this coming" (did you?), they did plan for it and were prudent in their planning and budgeting so that the impacts on our citizens have been fairly benign. The "muddled, balding, aging boomers" up here on the sunny side seem to have performed well in the face of crisis.

"Local marginal players who overexpanded on the back of debt fueled boom...." Well said We're accountable for our actions. We need to bail ourselves out and stop looking to others for help
Seth Cagin
|
January 13, 2010
Joan,

I am really glad that this work is going on and wish the task force the very best of luck. Thank you for doing this hard and essential work.
Joan May
|
January 13, 2010
Actually, there are people digging into the problem of how to improve the local economy in ways that protect our sense of community while safeguarding the environment (to the extent that this is possible.) The Regional Economic Futures Task Force is moving slowly and steadily forward to brainstorm and implement some strategies.

Be part of the solution! To get involved or give input, please contact the New Community Coalition: newcommunitycoalition.org.

There are no silver bullets, and there is much beyond our control, but there are things we can do to enhance what works. Will the community get frustrated and give up if we try? Will we fail because we can't define sustainability? I don't think so, as long as we make our decisions in line with our shared community values of supporting an economy that provides jobs that keep a diversity of community members here, while protecting the environment.
So What
|
January 12, 2010
Good observation on Planner II position. I agree. Another alternative would be to make that position a $35k position and there are scads of hungry young architect/planner types looking for work that would be happy to come for a few years and fill the position. Or, simply delay filling it for at least a year.
Good points
|
January 12, 2010
So What and Face.

At least the sheep, led by wolf Frank "I love Taxes" didnt raise the cost to live here anymore.

Did anyone else notice that even in this economy Bell is replacing Hawkins over in Town Control Hall...75k a year in benefits and pay...

Divide 75k by the 6% tax rate and you need 450k of economic activity on main street to pay for this replaced person...

Over at Town Hall they do not know the meaning of 'cutting back"....

so what
|
January 12, 2010
Maybe, just maybe, government isn't the answer to our local economy. Maybe it's better to let council waste their time on hillside zoning than attempt ham fisted changes to the local economy that will go nowhere. Perhaps we're just the pimple on the rump of the larger economy and until it heals itself and consumer spending again slowly rises and we work our way out of the detrius of a huge real estate and debt bubble there isn't much that can be done. Perhaps all the sustainable visioning coalitioning over our future is fun and warm and fuzzy and basically a collective form of mental masturbation. Our local governments didn't see this coming, didn't plan for it, didn't structure finances for any type of downturn, why would we expect any of them would be any better in digging us out of the hole, particularly the combination of neophytes and muddled balding aging boomers who are in charge now? For all the sturm and drang about main street vacancies it's worth noting the number of new businesses cropping up taking advantage of lower rents and costs. Funny thing that.

As has been the case since we grabbed the place from the Utes what we have to sell to outsiders is natural resources. First it was precious metals, then scenic/recreational resources, mostly for visitors and some dirt for those who choose to stay or want to own the place they visit. No amount of catterwauling about revamping the entire economy will change that. It's our competitive advantage and no one has taken it way, it's just become too costly at the moment in relation to real incomes for as many to enjoy as in the recent past. The local marginal players who overexpanded on the back of a debt fueled boom are being washed out and others will take over their assets at a more realistic price and enjoy the scenery just as much if not more because they got it cheaper.

Perhaps it's more worthwhile to be reviewing the new restaurants than worrying about council's agenda. I know personally that letting go of worrying about the utter stupidity of local government does has made a huge improvement in my life.
FaceOnMars (nli)
|
January 11, 2010
I believe there's some truth to what you've raised Seth. It's somewhat of a small dance of denial about underlying ideology which divides.

On one hand, there is an "economic reality" which people who live here are facing on a daily basis. Unfortunately, it is not pretty for some. Yet, there is also the fact that our local economy has GROWN CONSIDERABLY with the bubble expansion. The fact that our current economy is not "ideally sustainable" at our current profile might not necessarily be a "problem" which needs to be solved ... since it's somewhat of a byproduct of what amounts to a previous series of steriod injections to our economy. Instead, maybe we should try to solve the issue of how to stabilize the economy at it's natural equilibrium. However, it seems there's a steady stream of interests lined up to give Telluride it's next "steroid shot" (be it $55 million @ the airport or the equivalent of a Robert Moses' urban renewal project of Telluride: lift 8, err I mean lift 7).

Unfortunately, if you happen to be a person who was counting on unbridled growth to continue, then things look problematic & you might find yourself on the routing side for the next big "steroid shot".

Why not seek some sort of equilibrium or stability to our economic system?!? vs. chasing an elusive golden egg to "maximize returns". I have news for you, the Town of Telluride is not a for profit corporation, nor is the town council a "board of directors". This point needs to be driven home, apparently again and again.

As far as the Town Council agenda goes, isn't that generated by the Mayor?
amateur hour
|
January 11, 2010
A valid and lucid commentary on local goverment. On its best day it amateur hour(s) in that cramped little room. Surely no one belives for a minute that the currently assembled group is going to put forth any real wisdom on how to solve Telluride's economic woes.

Telluride places their leaders through a popularity contest based on how well you can convey that you understand what the "real" Telluride is all about.( ie; a fantasy land where the laws of economics cease to exist)

There is nary an ounce of experience in regards to executive leadership and therefore little should be expected. It is much easier to make mountains out of molehills and claim that they have saved Telluride.