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There’s something really stupid about smart growth

Column by Hal Walter

Rural Life – March 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN YOU FIRST ENTER the Silver Cliff town limits, about five miles east of the actual town on Highway 96, a roadside sign trumpets the area as recipient of the Governor’s award for “smart growth and development.”

Just past this sign, the Wet Mountain Valley spreads out, a patchwork of real-estate development — tracts from 2 to 80 acres, some vacant, others with anything on them from tarpaper shacks and house trailers to smart vacation homes and montrous starter mansions. Above it all looms the mostly snowless and defunct Mudcliffe Ski Resort, which most locals readily acknowledge was more about selling land than it was about skiing.

Down in Silver Cliff/Westcliffe Clusterplex, which should be renamed “Steelcliffe” because of the predominance of building type, nary an employer supports the actual cost of living in this community, where even the two newest restaurants have reduced hours. Meanwhile an extremely vocal minority clamors for more and better services — more cops, bigger jail, a recreation center and a new multi-million-dollar school. Economic development consists of 10 real-estate offices, a hardware store bigger than the actual core of either town, a nose-hair-clipper factory, and three espresso shops.

Smart growth indeed.

It’s not astonishing to me that Colorado ranks third in the nation in growth, nor that Custer County was recently ranked as the fourth fastest growing county in the nation. I’ve watched in amazement over the last 20 years what has gone on in this county as well as in this state, which more and more resembles a labyrinth of convenience-store strip malls criss-crossing an industrial-tourism theme park.

Extreme examples give us a glimpse of a dismal future — the east end of Pagosa Springs, the north end of Pueblo, the two interstate corridors that cut across the state like a crucifix lying on its side. All bear striking similarities to the north end of Hell.

I know, I know. You can’t stop growth.

Along with this smart growth, there’s been a good deal of talk, at least among those who are concerned, about the “Code of the West.” Is it an idea that endures time and growth, or is it something that mutates as the landscape becomes more densely populated?

My take on it is that the Code of the West transmogrified from something noble and honorable into something selfish and insidious when smart growth became fashionable. Independence and respect for your neighbor became belligerence and disrespect for the land. At some point in time the idea of “always leave gates as you find them” mutated into: “Screw your neighbor, do whatever the hell you want and always build your trophy house on the highest ridge.”

Speaking of gates and jerks, here are some examples.

Years ago I spoke with a U.S. Forest Service official about closing off a forest road near my home during the winter so that those who enjoyed winter sports such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing might enjoy it.

My reasoning was that there was generally enough snow to make the road impassable to motor vehicles, but never enough snow to keep some dimwit from trying to drive on it anyway. The result was that the road became rutted, and the snow became mixed with gravel, thus ruining it for both driving and skiing.

I GAVE IT UP after a couple of years of pleading and hearing what a nightmare of bureaucracy must be cracked in order to put up a simple gate on a forest road. So I was greatly surprised when a metal gate actually did appear, quite out of the blue, at the forest boundary this past autumn.

Too bad the forest service neglected to close this new gate. After the first big winter storm, I skied up the road in 16 inches of powder. A couple of days later, someone with a backhoe bladed the road. I called the Forest Service and reported this. I was told that private plowing of a forest road was illegal, but that it took four inches of snow and a signed order from on-high to actually close the gate.

Apparently a landowner with holdings within the forest — and a type of arrogance that does not need explaining — plowed the road for several miles to his property. Weeks later, the gate is still as I found it, and the road is still being plowed. Ironically, I recently heard a report on National Public Radio about how the forest service can’t afford gates to protect caves in northwest Colorado.

Actually you can’t really control people with gates, because there are some things that gates just can’t stop — like bad air and bullets.

One morning I awoke to the smell of burning plastic. A look out my front door revealed a huge murky cloud that hung close to the ground and shielded my view of the trees just across the road. I jumped into the car and drove up my road to see if one of my neighbor’s houses had burned, but found that all were still standing in the early morning gloom of what would have otherwise been a bluebird winter day.

I drove back home and watched as the toxic fog oozed to the east, affording a few minutes of clean breathing, then made its way back into my little valley. I pinpointed the origin of smoke to a neighbor’s house about a mile away.

Just a few days before this, Christmas Eve in fact, my wife, Mary, and I were out for a run and heard shots at this same house. When we came around the corner, we noticed an person aiming a rifle from the deck in our general direction. Another individual told the shooter to hold his fire, and we passed without incident.

Now this smoke.

I called the sheriff’s department and inquired about fires in the area. None were reported. I then gave the direction and suspected source of the toxic-smelling haze. The dispatch officer said she would call the neighbor.

Several minutes later the smoke was intensifying, so I called the sheriff’s office again. The dispatcher had called the neighbor, who told her that he was just burning his Christmas tree. She apparently did not buy this story either. She told him that people were complaining of smoke that smelled like burning plastic and to put the fire out.

But still the smoke did not go away.

My third call to the authorities demanded that an officer be dispatched to this home and that the fire be put out. By now other neighbors had called to complain and the inside of my house reeked of burning plastic.

Later I dropped by the sheriff’s office and was told that the officer was shown a smoldering stump. Must have been a fake Christmas tree.

A really big one.

That same week, Mary — speeding to her job as she is prone to do — saw in her rear-view mirror a sports yuptility vehicle (SYV) approaching at high speed. The SYV driver rode Mary’s bumper for a while before flashing his lights as a signal for her to pull over and let him pass. Since when did Hardscrabble Canyon become the autobahn?

Right about the same time we got “smart about growth” and rewrote the “Code of the West.”

Hal Walter’s incessant griping and bitching makes him few friends in the real estate business, but gives him great amusement from his throne of pontification high on the frozen tundra of the Wet Mountains.