Tom Ross: Change is in the Yampa Valley's springtime air

Do we have the tools to manage growth and shape our future?

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— Editor's note: This column originally published in May 2006. Its relevance has only increased in the last 12 months as Routt County's construction boom accelerates. Portions of the column were edited for timeliness

There was water running everywhere in the valley south of Steamboat Springs on Sunday afternoon. It was coursing through seasonal streambeds and attempting to back up the culvert where Agate Creek runs under Routt County Road 14. It was flowing in sheets across meadows and popping out of holes in the ground along road cuts. Its music was audible everywhere my bicycle took me.

Perhaps it was you who buzzed by me on your new road bike. I was riding an old Gary Fisher from the days before mountain bikes had suspensions. I now refer to it as my "cyclo-cross bike" in a vain effort to be cool.

I had ample time to reflect as I pushed the magenta-colored bike against the snow-eating breeze that blew out of the south on Sunday. For much of the past two weeks, I've been preoccupied with the accelerating pace of change in Routt County.

Change is constant - we all know that. But, as the days get longer and we slip into the summer of 2007, it feels like our community has crossed a threshold signaling a new era.

Thanks to some dedicated public officials and conservation advocates, the valley south of Steamboat is still wide open. There are giant horse barns and sprawling mansions here and there, but the landscape doesn't look all that different than it did 30 years ago. We can credit much of that to Routt County's recently-tweaked land preservation subdivision, which offers incentives to developers to cluster the homes on their subdivisions and leave the balance in hay meadows or upland shrub habitat.

By most measures, the land preservation subdivision ordinance has been a success. Now, several rural subdivisions are bidding to bring unprecedented wealth to the valley. Add up the value of 150 lots in those subdivisions priced between $1 million and $2 million. Add in the value of 150 homes in the $4 million range. You're quickly approaching a development play that will approach $1 billion. And that's before you consider the numerous redevelopment projects under way within the Steamboat city limits.

Two very wise women told me last week that they think the residents of Northwest Colorado need to increase their efforts to understand the changes being wrought in our communities by growth.

Audrey Danner of Yampa Valley Partners is convinced that in order to succeed in managing growth, we must stop thinking of the towns, cities and rural communities in Northwest Colorado as separate entities. Instead, she urges that we regard the region as one socio-economic system. Her organization has sponsored a series of seminars this year intended to help community leaders understand how their decisions inevitably affect the next town down the valley.

Noreen Moore has just published an exhaustive study of the growing impact location-neutral workers - those who live here but collect a paycheck from a company outside the valley - are having on our community. Moore is convinced the good salaries they earn make them prime candidates to form the next generation of permanent residents who will raise families here and volunteer for community organizations. Yet, she's alarmed that the upward spiral of home prices here could price them out of the market within fewer than five years.

The Economic Development Council of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association will host a luncheon forum Wednesday entitled "Housing our Workforce" to address at least one aspect of the challenges that face us (call 875-7000 to register). It's an opportunity to learn how employers in a variety of industries are working to cope with the housing shortage. An article on the forum appears elsewhere in today's newspaper.

If we can't make a place for new families, Moore fears that the sense of community that attracts people to the Yampa Valley will be eroded to the point that it is no longer recognizable.

The turnaround point of my bike ride Sunday was an intersection where two county roads are met by the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The signal box at the junction has the word "Sidney" painted on it in block letters.

Gazing at the handful of well-kept ranch buildings at the junction, it's hard to imagine this was once a lively little community on the main stagecoach route from Wolcott to Steamboat. Sidney's post office first opened in 1887. By 1905, the town had a church, a boarding house, a dairy, a blacksmith and a general store.

The railroad arrived in 1908, and Sidney thrived as a shipping point. But when the modern highway was built over Rabbit Ears Pass, Sidney became irrelevant.

Sometimes change is irresistible.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.

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