By Ron Sering
The late Ed Quillen once remarked that “every time Salida seems like it’s poised for growth, something happens to set it back.” Even into the early 2000s, Chaffee County had remained relatively undiscovered amidst the massive growth along the Front Range. But with a two-year growth rate of 5.6 percent, change is in the air. “Why are people coming here?” asked Cindy Williams, Board Chair of the Central Colorado Conservancy. “Just look out the window. We’re home to twelve of the state’s fourteeners, and the Arkansas River comprises sixty percent of the state’s Gold Medal waters.”
“Nobody wants growth to stop,” Williams said. “But how do we be smarter about it? How to embrace growth without losing what makes the area desirable to begin with?” Enter Envision Chaffee County. Williams co-chairs Envision Chaffee County along with County Commissioner Greg Felt, seeking ways to meet Chaffee’s phenomenal growth and keep it the same laid-back place it is now. “Chaffee County is still a place where people say hi to each other on the street, enjoy open space. And it’s still affordable, compared to a lot of places in the state.”
Rather than work in a vacuum, the group enlisted support of local businesses and non-profits, local government, and residents in a series of meetings and public opinion surveys. “We got responses from 1,500 people,” Williams said. “That’s twelve percent of the population. That’s huge.” Action teams took this data and focused attention on the areas of preserving the mountain environment, economic opportunity, preservation of the Chaffee’s small town ambience and sustainability of the area’s agriculture and ranching.
Healthy Forests, Waters and Wildlife
The Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area fed $72M into the area economy in 2017, and cited a 16 percent yearly growth rate in the area’s recreational industry. Findings estimate that nearly 100,000 hikers summited area fourteeners.
All this sounds good; people visit, they recreate, they eat, drink and sleep, and no harm is done. “But we’ve discovered that recreation can be a consumptive activity,” Williams said. “For instance, some dispersed campsites have no latrine or trash facilities, and often have multiple fire rings per campsite.” In addition, the area forests and waterways, weakened by drought, remain in a vulnerable state.
If You Build It, Can They Afford It?
Increasing property values are double-edged; for property owners who’ve struggled for years to grow and prosper, more money for their homes and land is a great boon.
“Chaffee County is still relatively affordable,” Williams said. But it is far from cheap. The website Zillow estimates the median value of a home in Chaffee county at $358,000, slightly less than the statewide median of $364,000. However, that comes on the tail of a nearly nine percent price increase in 2017. Coupled with this is a net population decrease of people 20-24, the backbone of the workforce. They simply can’t afford to live here.
A Shrinking Rural Life
While recreation dominates Chaffee’s economy, agriculture and ranching remain potent economic drivers. Since 1982, however, more than 30 percent of the local landscape has been converted to commercial development, threatening a century and a half of ranch culture, as well as the vast swaths of open space around Chaffee’s urban centers. It’s not easy raising cattle or growing crops at 7,000 feet; the economic pressure to cut deals with developers can be very hard to pass up.
Funding the Future
Envision’s fifty-page action plan outlines more than 40 programs addressing a wide range of issues including forest health, affordable housing and preservation of agricultural lands. All good, but how to pay for it? The four action committees have generated more than $350,000 in grant requests, of which $40,000 have been awarded. The organization spearheaded the effort to add Initiative 1A to the ballot, a proposed sales tax increase going toward forest health and water quality. “No other county in the state has done anything like this,” Williams said. “I think we’re going to invent some things that other communities can use to manage their own growth.”
Ron Sering loves running, hiking and snowshoeing on Chaffee County’s many trails, though his knees sometimes complain.