Starting with Gunnison and working north
By Katherine Nettles
The Gunnison County commissioners had an in-depth work session discussion with county planning staff last month about how they want to approach development within the highway corridors throughout the county, concluding that managing urban sprawl and maintaining open views is important, while also allowing for more flexibility for economic development within the commercial/industrial sector.
Although the discussion was centered mostly on the south end of the valley as a first step, commissioners said they plan to have the same discussions regarding the north end of the valley in the coming months as part of the Gunnison County strategic plan. The county’s goal is to have a formal resolution adopted by the end of this year.
The discussion originated just over a year ago, reviewed Gunnison County community development director Cathie Pagano. “We were seeing increased applications and conversations in our office for development of commercial/industrial parcels outside the city of Gunnison, mostly surrounding the city, some in the north corridor, some east and west of town,” she said, and the department wanted to assess how this development interest would potentially impact highway corridors and sprawling development patterns.
The community development department has been participating with the city of Gunnison’s comprehensive planning process, and some information has come forward that applies to the county as well. Feedback from a survey conducted in Gunnison has echoed that of the county’s previous One Valley Prosperity Project survey and previous county corridor planning surveys. The feedback suggests that focusing development and density in particular areas to avoid urban sprawl is a priority at both ends of the valley. Pagano said her department’s analysis sought to answer the question, “How do you draw businesses here or grow businesses that are already here, and have a vibrant, viable workforce that is resilient over time?”
Across the western states, Pagano cited another study that surveyed entrepreneurs, business owners and residents to understand why people might bring or keep their business in that location, and what would drive them to move or to continue living in that location. This report showed that creating compact development, great schools, safety and a vibrant downtown made the difference to business owners. What resonates with people is probably what draws us all here, she said: a sense of community, quality of life and safety.
“For our planning efforts, I think it’s important to recognize that, and if we hear from those in the North Valley as well, I think those values will be the same,” said county commissioner Jonathan Houck. Pagano said she had also reached out to the ICELab and the Gunnison Valley Tourism and Prosperity Partnership, asking both organizations to include their input and that of their clientele about economic interests. She said their feedback has mirrored those of the city survey results.
County staff conducted a market analysis with four local real estate professionals, which showed varied demands for real estate throughout the county. But overall, industrial demand is greater than commercial. One-third to half-acre lot sizes with mixed use for manufacturing, outdoor storage and other “flex space” and central services like water and electricity are very desirable, said Pagano. And all development is concentrated on the 135 corridor, as opposed to the Highway 50 corridor. Interestingly, commercial businesses are avoiding renovations for existing spaces to fit their business needs, opting instead to build new, despite much higher costs, she said.
Gunnison County’s Land Use Resolution (LUR) prioritizes locating commercial, industrial and other non-residential development to be adjacent to an incorporated municipality. “Those can be quite difficult to achieve,” Pagano said, because often there are opportunities within the city or platted industrial parks. In the outskirts of Gunnison, Pagano said there is already a fair amount of sprawl, and her recommendation to the commissioners was to work with municipalities to “fill in” the targeted city limit and suburban development spaces, then designate adjacent zones for future development and create special geographic areas to protect from development.
The commissioners gave direction to continue asserting the zoning standards and manage expectations about applications for commercial and industrial uses outside of those standards, but without making it too difficult for commercial enterprise to be creative and have flexible uses.
Pagano said the county has experienced very consistent growth rates over time, despite what some people think. “We are growing at a steady rate of about 1 percent or so a year, and have been for the last 20 years. I did see one public comment that said ‘We’re growing really fast,’” she said of the Gunnison survey. “My perception is we’ve been growing very steady and at a very similar rate for quite a number of years, and there hasn’t been this big explosion. Things have certainly changed, and will continue to change and evolve—but there hasn’t been some big spike in the demographic or development,” she said.
“These [community values] aren’t simple things to deal with, but if the goal posts were moving every few years it sure makes it a lot harder,” Pagano concluded.
A key finding on the survey results list that commissioner Jonathan Houck said he would like to see fall off, however, is that people often sacrifice a higher salary elsewhere for higher quality of life to be in the community they choose.
“I would like to think there is some place where the value of the community doesn’t make people make a professional choice to say, ‘to be here I make less,’ or ‘to be here I have to sacrifice something.’ At some point you want to see that turn on itself. If there’s a place where we want to see a shift over time, that’s it. At least for me,” said Houck.
Commissioner John Messner weighed in, saying he thinks there is demand for more economic development space, but that people might prefer prepared maker spaces or places to co-locate businesses, and it’s harder for people to make the investment to build their own facility.
For now, Pagano recommended an incremental development approach to all residential, commercial or industrial growth, to be most efficient with taxpayer funds. This can mean expanding municipal services incrementally, including the addition of sidewalks and bike lanes, and “not cutting off the next person in line,” down the road.
Later this year the department will work with community planning department staff in Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte.