Housing is going up everywhere, and there's intense growth pressure. Fruita's population is about 10,000, but it has been growing at a rate of over 8 percent the past four years. The story throughout Mesa County is the same.
"It's a challenge to plan with these kind of growth pressures," Dahna Raugh told me. Dahna is the Community Development Director for the City of Fruita, on Colorado's Western Slope, just northwest of the city of Grand Junction.
I spoke the previous evening with members of the Mesa County Planning Commission at the end of their commission meeting. Planning Commission Chairman Mark Bonella (second from left in photo) had also cited the "extreme amount of growth that's occurring" as a result of the energy boom, and the strong demand for rural residential housing.
One of the issues that has come up -- apparently causing frictions between the county planning commission and the cities of Grand Junction and Fruita -- relates to a proposal in the county land use plan (adopted last year) calling for the establishment of "urban/residential reserve" zoning around the cities.
Members of the county planning commission expressed to me the frustration that farmers are facing -- they see land values skyrocketing, the farm economy failing, and a high demand for housing, yet because of zoning restrictions they are unable to convert their land to any significant amount of housing.
As Mark Bonella put it, "farmers are getting hit from all sides." Planning commissioner Christi Flynn added that their land "can provide for their retirement ... and farmers feel this is their chance to cash in."
The new county wide land use plan reflects this new reality. As it states: "The agricultural economy is transitioning in many areas of the County from production to recreation and lifestyle oriented development. Many previously agricultural areas in the Mid and Lower Valley are in transition to other land uses including suburban, estate, and rural residential uses."
One aim of the urban/residential reserve called for in the county plan is to allow for substantially higher residential densities than permitted by current county zoning.
But there's resistance from Fruita to this approach. For Dahna, the problem is that the urban residential reserve will promote leapfrog development, and put pressure on the city to annex the new developments and provide municipal services prematurely, while there's still developable land within the city.
Dahna showed me a recent development located just outside of Fruita (photo on the right). One problem she pointed to was its lack of curbs and sidewalks. If it had been built at even higher densities, as the county urban residential reserve zoning proposal would allow, this problem would be made even worse.
In contrast, Mark Bonella feels that without promptly implementing the urban residential reserve, Fruita will not be able to accommodate the demand for housing. Again, also underlying this is the feeling that farmers should be able to take advantage of the soaring land values in today's market.
It will be interesting to see how this growth debate plays itself out during these boom times on Colorado's Western Slope.
p.s., couldn't resist including the following two photos from Fruita. One shows the guardian to Fruita's downtown (named Grrrreta by Fruita's school kids; the other was a sign on an industrial park -- read the bottom line.