Three counties meet up in the Horsefly Mesa region. Two of those counties – San Miguel and Ouray – are pursuing policies that might be categorized as slow growth. The third, Montrose County, is not.
Indeed, Montrose County Commissioner Alan Belt clearly declared last week at a meeting of officials from all three counties that Montrose County favors higher densities.
This comes as no surprise. While Montrose County has approved high density developments accessed by Dave Wood Rd., Ouray County has moved much more cautiously, and San Miguel County has not entertained any development proposals in the area.
Because Colorado gives so much control to counties, with no mechanism for enforceable regional planning, there really isn’t much that Ouray or San Miguel can do to mitigate the impacts of intense development just outside their boundaries. By the same token, there is not much Montrose can do to mitigate the impacts of slow-growth policies by its neighbors. Each county is entirely free to pursue its own vision of the future: A prescription for bad outcomes.
To their credit, officials from the three counties meet regularly to discuss matters of regional concern, ranging from housing to transportation and beyond. But given their profound philosophical differences, it is fair to ask how much common ground they can find.
One can easily imagine this future: you’ll drive past relatively open vistas and through relatively low-density development in either San Miguel or Ouray county to the Montrose line and abruptly cross over into areas of suburban-style sprawl. This may happen not only on the Dave Wood Rd. but on Hwy. 550 between Ridgway and Ouray and even on the West End of San Miguel and Montrose counties.
But, of course, the impacts of larger populations in Montrose County will spill over into neighboring counties, most notably in the form of traffic. That’s the rub with the Dave Wood Rd. While some look forward to an alternative route between Montrose and Telluride – bypassing Ridgway – others imagine this to be a nightmare scenario. If Montrose County paves its portions of the road and permits high density development along it, it is difficult to imagine that Ouray and San Miguel can long resist pressures to pave the road all the way to the Dallas Divide. Thus one of the three counties can make a major decision affecting all three.
It’s not as if San Miguel is blameless. One source of all the development pressure in Montrose County is that property values have gotten so high in San Miguel County that workers can’t live near their jobs. Instead, workers are forced to live in the more affordable areas of Montrose County and commute to work, clogging narrow mountain roads. This problem will only get worse, much worse, as major new hotels break ground and then are completed in Mountain Village in the next few years. This will surely translate into still more pressure to pave Dave Wood Rd. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear proposals in the not-so-distant future to pave Last Dollar, as well. How else will all the workers get to Telluride?
For its part, Ouray County may feel it is stuck in the middle, quite literally, between one county that has almost completely failed to house its workforce and another with virtually no interest in restricting growth. Ouray County is philosophically in the middle, as well.
Of course, it’s not too difficult to see that property values in Ouray County are headed up, up, up, as even wealthy second homeowners are priced out of San Miguel, which will soon force that county’s workforce further down valley to, where else? Montrose. That’s still more development pressure on Montrose. It will create still more pressure to restrict growth in San Miguel and Ouray. And it will add up to still more traffic by more commuters.
We can all see this coming, and in some respects we are helpless to prevent it. The world’s population is growing, so our regional population must inevitably grow too. People have to live somewhere, after all.
There is one course of action that could, at least theoretically, go a long way toward mitigating the negative impacts, and that is for these three counties, despite their differences, to find a way to really work together, to understand each other, and to join forces to do some enlightened planning. It may seem impossible to imagine how Montrose might compromise its high-density vision, or how San Miguel and Ouray might give a little on their strong preservationist impulses.
But for our best possible future, we must hope they try. We are, in the end, one region.