Selling San Juan: Part 4

An essay on New West gentrification and the feasibility of preserving community self-determination in San Juan County after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.

Part 4: New West Exurbia

The core process of this change is parcelization — the division of land into progressively smaller tracts. As large parcels encompassing fields, forests, and grasslands become subdivided and developed, rural areas face declining returns on farming and logging activities. At the same time, undeveloped parcels become farther apart and face increasing pressure to further subdivide and develop. New roads and other infrastructure that serve these scattered lots perforate productive agricultural and forested areas. Communities then end up paying more for services than they collect from property taxes. In addition, low density rural development fragments wildlife habitat.

— Kennedy & McFarlane. Identifying Parcelization and Land Use Patterns in 3 Wisconsin Towns. Bayfield County, WI.

The Revolution Will Be Subdivided

As noted in an earlier part of the essay, rural restructuring due to amenity migration shifts the basis of a local economy from agriculture and resource extraction to tourism and real estate development.  Anyone familiar with the gentrifying New West is familiar with its signature form: the large custom home (or cluster of homes and outbuildings) on a very large lot or ranchette, with the edge of town becoming increasingly less clear as relatively abundant large parcels in the unincorporated county are subdivided for residential use.

La Plata County, CO. Photo:

This land use pattern is neither fish nor fowl: no longer agricultural in any productivist sense nor pristine, but also not nearly dense enough to avoid the rapid consumption of open space or create any of the benefits of urbanism.  It is, for lack of a better word, sprawl, and quantifying the scope of the phenomenon in the New West is illuminating.  One analysis of western Montana found that the population of the subject area grew by 50% between 1970 and 2006 while the acreage developed for residential use grew by 200%.  Note that the disparity here between population growth and residential land consumption is actually even greater than it may seem at first glance: the unit of residential demand  is not the individual but the household and the average household size in a given area is almost certain to be greater than two.  So, population growth of 50% translates to household growth and corresponding new housing demand of something less than 25%.

Another paper, which thoroughly examined the proliferation of ranchettes in La Plata County, Colorado, found that, as of 2008, this land use form (defined quite narrowly, for sensible reasons, as parcels of 35-70 acres) comprised fully a quarter of all private, nonprotected land in the county.  In real numbers, 106,445 acres were occupied by just 2,610 ranchettes at the time of the analysis.

Even closer to San Juan County, it is clear that a similar process is unfolding in the area around Moab.  Between 1980 and 2010, the population of Grand County grew by about 1,000 people.  So, applying conservative assumptions, all of Grand County’s net population growth over a 30-year period could have comfortably fit on 165 acres, an area about half the size of Bluff, Utah.[1]  It is obvious even from a casual “windshield analysis” that much, much more land than this has been consumed by new residential development in Grand County during the past 30-odd years.  Of course, after accounting for secondary homeownership, the total demand for residential development in Moab is significantly greater than what is needed to serve permanent residents.[2]  Still, it should be sobering to note that the same 165 acres that could easily accommodate all of the net population growth in Grand County over a 30-year period constitutes no more than four new households in the form of La Plata ranchettes or one Sorrel River Resort.

[1] The 165-acre estimate assumes two people per new household and three homes per net acre.  In practical terms, this assumes 100% of new residences would be single-family detached homes on lots in the range of 10,000-11,000 square feet.  This is basically the residential form of the typical low-density modern suburb.  By contrast, the typical size of single-family lots in traditional neighborhoods (e.g. Sugarhouse in SLC) is in the range of 5,000-7,000 square feet, which yields a net density of around five homes per acre.  Also, according to the US Census, the actual average household size in Grand County is 2⅓ people.  If you apply these slightly less conservative assumptions — 2⅓ people per household and five dwellings per acre — the homes needed for the 1,000 new residents added to Grand County between 1980 and 2010 would fit on about 85 acres.  Note that even this less conservative estimate assumes 100% single-family detached homes.

[2] According to the statistical reporting of the Utah State Tax Commission, Grand County’s primary/secondary homeownership rate is about 60/40.

Why The New West Looks Like This

Before more fully addressing some of the ways in which New West sprawl writ large may be a problem, it must be acknowledged that, writ small, it makes perfect sense.  In fact, the process is entirely rational to the participants: affluent consumers of residential real estate have a particular aesthetic vision of the rural West that is obviously best expressed on a large plot of land at a happy remove from neighbors; the very reason developers and realtors exist is to satisfy this sort of demand; landowners become enthusiastic land sellers as the demand for residential property drives prices above the economic returns of agricultural production or sentimental attachment; existing residents perceive very large lots and ranchettes as respecting and preserving the rural character of a place in a way that more urban residential forms do not; and subdividing very large parcels into merely large parcels requires no particular intention or political will on the part of local government.  In short, as in any good tragedy of the commons, the road to hell is paved with strong short term incentives.

Defining Development

Everyone hates traffic and everyone hates development.  And also, everyone is traffic and everyone is development.  This truism should begin to make apparent the problem with a reflexive, categorical opposition to development.  More to the point, “development” is a probably necessary but certainly insufficient label for the complex social and economic processes that yield the patterns of social arrangement and physical placemaking we can observe across history.  It is a term badly in need of some wrestling down.

When I think of Progress and what it means for places like Moab, I think of a community in which its citizens can earn a decent living, pay the bills, and have something left over at the end of the month. But I can call it Progress only when those citizens also realize the value of the intangible qualities that make our town unique and enrich our lives.

Qualities like the beauty and solitude of the canyons and mountains that surround us and qualities like the friendship, compassion and the trust and support of our neighbors are, to me, just as important as the bottom line on a financial statement.

Progress is maintaining our small town atmosphere while recognizing that some change is inevitable, and that change can sometimes even be an improvement.
Development is when the greed of its citizens allows uncontrolled growth that destroys all the qualities of small town life…the qualities that brought many of us here in the first place.

Progress is a business that flourishes and expands to meet a growing demand, while still maintaining the quality that caused its success in the first place. Its success is due to the owners’ talent and their hard work, and their employees’; expanding the business is the reward for their efforts.
Development is an out-of-town investor who sees there’s money to be made and throws up another fast food franchise, taking business and customers away from the local cafes that have survived for years and years.

Stiles, J. Progress v Development. The Canyon Country Zephyr.

I quote this piece at length here for at least two reasons.  One, it was written in 1994 and so allows for a fascinating bit of time travel into the mind of a thoughtful writer peering into the near future of his hometown and worrying about what that might look like.  We now live in that future and can consider the outcome of what must be millions of individual, local decisions that have been made between then and now, and weigh that outcome against his framework of development versus progress.  And, two, distinguishing “development” from “progress” is a sensible way of wrestling with the complexities embedded in the language we use to make sense of profound social and environmental change.

That said, in the next part of the essay I will take a slightly different approach.  I will suggest that “development” is itself a neutral term that generically describes a wide variety of activities that change the use of land along specific, concrete dimensions.  Different forms of development have different social, economic and environmental consequences, and reducing such distinct, complex processes to a single disparaging term tends to foreclose discussion at a point when a community needs it most.

As a social, economic and political process  — a human process — development is not a naturally occurring fact but a contingent and contestable activity.  In this sense, development is not itself an end but a means to an end or, more accurately, multiple ends.  If, for instance, the people of a municipality can broadly agree on a set of outcomes that would count as “progress,” then they have a chance of engaging processes of “development” that are consistent with that goal.  However, given the strong short term incentives outlined above, a community like Moab circa 1994 has essentially no hope of a future defined by something other than exurban sprawl if its approach to development is unintentional or persistently reactive.  For these reasons, I believe development, both as a term and a process, should be addressed directly.


Select sources & additional reading: