This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
The late Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm once ominously warned that the state’s treasured fourteeners were at risk of being loved to death by growing numbers of waffle-stomping hikers.
Now it is the state’s mountain towns that are threatened by too many people with too much appreciation.
That’s according to a report issued last week by Montana’s Headwaters Economics, which outlines the challenges facing communities paradoxically blessed with natural attractions that make them great places to live but cursed with growing pains that threaten resources and lifestyles.
The economists and researchers at Headwaters Economics call it the amenity trap and they’ve mapped out a way communities can escape confounding stresses in rural, amenity-rich regions that are drawing visitors and new residents in record numbers.
The economists and researchers at Headwaters Economics spent more than a year compiling the 37-page report — with 122 footnoted sources — that identifies a diverse dashboard of potential policy solutions for communities grappling with growth and impacts.
“I think a lot of reporting and coverage and attention gets paid to the troubles these places are facing, especially since the pandemic,” said Megan Lawson, the lead researcher for outdoor recreation and public lands for Headwaters Economics. “But what I really got out of this was just how many communities are digging in deeply on these topics and getting really creative in tackling these issues. In the end I think the report weaves together all these different solutions that communities are trying.”
“Amenity Trap, How high-amenity communities can avoid being loved to death” urges communities to develop robust fiscal policies along with plans for housing, infrastructure development and natural-disaster mitigation to help dodge the most acute problems caused by a sudden growth in residents and visitors.
Lawson hopes the report can be a one-stop shop for communities seeking to escape or avoid the amenity trap.
“We have so many examples in here because we want folks to possibly see themselves in another community anywhere across the country and give them a call,” Lawson said. “Ask what has worked, what hasn’t, what advice do you have for us, what would you tweak?”
Innovative policies in Colorado’s smaller municipalities play a starring role in the report.
Colorado’s mountain towns have been on the frontlines of the amenity trap dilemma for decades. With innovative leaders in remote regions seeking any and all potential solutions to the repercussions of being loved to death, Larson sees a growing “open-mindedness and willingness to explore different ways of doing things” in rural Colorado enclaves.
The pandemic amplified the long, sustained pressure in Colorado’s mountain towns.
“And it created opportunities to bring new folks to the table who are demanding action and changes to policies,” Lawson said. “It’s not just the people who have been in the trenches for ages. Now it’s the business owners and the big employers who can’t hire people and can’t retain employees. There is a much broader group of people who are shining a light on these problems now.”
“Colorado has been a laboratory for a long time,” said Jon Stavney, the head of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, an organization of high country leaders exploring progressive strategies to ease housing and labor problems in mountain communities.
In 2021, the NWCCOG and Colorado Association of Ski Towns conducted a survey of 4,700 residents in six mountain counties to study the impact of the pandemic on housing, rentals and high-country lifestyles.
The 70-page “Mountain Migration Report” showed wealthy new residents squeezing out locals and revealed the struggle of business owners seeking workers in tourism economies as well as the impacts of increased traffic in the backcountry.
The survey showed overwhelming concern over the lack of attainable housing in the six, resort-anchored counties — Grand, Eagle, Pitkin, Routt, San Miguel and Summit — where only about half the homes are occupied by full-time residents and populations more than double during peak travel periods.
The pressures in those communities is forcing leaders to explore first-ever plans, like programs in Winter Park and Breckenridge that pay property owners to switch short-term rentals over to homes for working locals.
“These kinds of policies show how acute the problem is right now,” Stavney said. “These folks have permission to get this wrong because of trying. This is a learning-by-doing process.”
Since 2019, home prices in Colorado’s mountain towns have more than doubled as urban buyers flock to mountain regions during the pandemic. The Headwaters Economics report details how wealthy home buyers paying cash push more buyers into lower tier markets, where they can more easily outbid people who were maybe stretching to purchase homes, forcing them into a lower tier.
“This process will continue to the least expensive homes, and potential buyers of the least expensive homes will postpone homeownership and continue renting,” reads the report, which calls the downward shuffling of home buyers “the housing bridge.”
The report’s authors call for communities to develop housing plans alongside economic development plans and encourage states to deploy “growth management laws to require or incentivize municipalities to incorporate housing with economic development plans.”
Mountain towns in April aligned to voice concerns over a state plan that imposed guidelines to guide local development. There is a wariness in Colorado’s local governments that an overarching state plan may impede local control of growth. It takes a deft touch to craft statewide policies that protect the ability of local governments to respond to specific growth pressures, Stavney said.
That state land use bill — it was called Senate Bill 213 — did not make it out of the statehouse this spring but some version of it will likely come back around in the next legislative session. Mountain towns are working with state lawmakers to fine tune statewide land use policies, Stavney said.
Maybe the state can help more communities navigate around a statewide ban on new real estate transfer taxes, which Headwaters Economics suggests as a possible policy solution to funding housing in stressed communities. (There are 12 Colorado communities that approved real estate transfer taxes before voters approved the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in 1992 and those towns are harvesting record revenues in the post-pandemic real estate boom.)
Or maybe there’s a way the state can help create different tax structures for primary homes and secondary homes in Colorado, Stavney said. There are ways a state can help local governments better address growth and the Headwaters Economics report helps to float ideas for shaping regional policies that include multiple municipalities that cross all kinds of borders, Stavney said.
When communities are unable to supply housing for residents at all income levels, the Headwaters economists suggest regional coordination with neighboring communities, limiting vacation rentals and using modular construction to bring down costs of building new housing.
The Headwaters Economic report points to Durango encouraging residents to build accessory dwelling units for local workers, the regional partnerships in the Summit Combined Housing Authority and modular home construction in Norwood as examples of housing programs that are working. The report trumpets Winter Park’s short-term rental program as a way to encourage property owners to rent to locals, not vacationers. The Town of Vail’s InDeed deed-restriction program is offered as another strategy for creating attainable housing.
Stavney sees the Headwaters Economics suggestion to develop multijurisdictional regional housing plans as the next step for many of his members in the NWCCOG, with county leaders working with neighbors in other counties to develop and fund housing.
“That is the next step we are heading toward,” he said.
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The research urges smaller communities to look beyond other similar-sized towns for answers to vexing growth problems. Lawson said metro areas can be models for corralling growth.
“There is a dawning recognition that these rural places are dealing with big city problems,” Lawson said. “Having that open-mindedness to look at big urban centers for ideas is key. How are Seattle, San Francisco and New York dealing with these issues? My hope and one of the goals of this paper is to bring some of these urban concepts to the smaller towns and rural audience.”