Mapping the Future of Urban Sprawl

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Unless the state is willing to mandate tighter restrictions on the subdividing of rural land, regional planning may be the only way to curb the spread of exurbia, which brings with it the single greatest engine of sprawl and habitat destruction: new roads. Theobald looks at the commute times in Park and Elbert counties, the much-stressed four-lane highway between Glenwood Springs and Aspen, the craze for mountain homes in wildfire hot zones west of Denver and Fort Collins, and sees a phenomenon that seems impractical, unsustainable and yet unstoppable. Cheap housing, he notes, trumps rising fuel prices every time.

But the true cost of the exurban experiment, he adds, is being subsidized by all of us. City dwellers pay disproportionately for the construction and maintenance of new roads and services in exurbia. Nearly half of the Forest Service's budget is now consumed fighting fires, compared to 13 percent in 1991. And more than half of the new rural housing starts in Colorado are in severe fire zones.

"The vast majority of the wild-urban interface is actually on private land," Theobald says. "The federal government is out protecting private structures."

Translating his concerns about exurbia into action is, of course, one of Theobald's greater frustrations, but you can't fault him for trying. When Ouray County officials were presented with several different proposals that would modify their land-use plan, they turned to Theobald for an analysis of the impact the changes would have. Theobald sat down with locals, assembled a list of possible zoning scenarios and concerns about different "quality of life indicators," and prepared a buildout analysis.

The result showed how doubling the number of housing units allowed per 35-acre parcel would significantly diminish wildlife habitat and agricultural land while increasing miles driven by as much as five times; more clustered housing had fewer impacts. The analysis was done using parcel-by-parcel data, giving landowners a more tangible view of how their lives might be affected by the proposals.

"It was received pretty well," Theobald says. "It helped ground the discussion. It's always hard to say that something concrete came out of it, but I think it helped lower the acrimony."

Ouray County Commissioner Dave Batchelder says that a committee is still studying Theobald's work. Some critics of the study want a degree of certainty in planning tools that just isn't feasible, he adds, but others appreciated the analysis: "People don't usually think about the number of trips a day and how that affects quality of life. For those of us who are demographics junkies, information like this is always helpful."

Regardless of how the county's current growth quandaries turn out, Batchelder appreciates Theobald's willingness to inject some objective figures into the fray. "The original mission of land-grant universities was to help local governments," he says. "Over the years, it's gone to working with large agricultural businesses, more of a corporate relationship. To Dave's credit, in this effort he has pushed for the university to fulfill its mission. That type of attitude, it seems to me, could have significant benefits for rural communities across the state."

Theobald hopes to get more involved in local planning issues even as his research leads him to a more national and even global view of the land. He's currently embarking on an EPA study that will attempt to incorporate data on land use in the western United States in a study of projected climate change stretching to the year 2100. "A lot of climate-change models are making assumptions about the surface of the land and how it will interact with the atmosphere," Theobald explains. "But they have very simplistic assumptions about land use."

Linking up GIS work to the complexities of computer-generated climate models seems to be the logical next step. But trying to crack the global-warming problem won't prevent Theobald from attempting to map ranchettes in rural Larimer County, too.

"It deepens your understanding if you can work at multiple scales," he says. "I can't possibly know how growth is occurring across the United States. But I do have a deep rooting in certain places, and I like to keep grounded in the data."

Class is almost over, and visiting lecturer Theobald is trying to squeeze a few more key points into his presentation. He wants the students to understand that the notion of a protected area has less to do with whether it's owned by public or private interests than the type of management and activities allowed on that land. He brings up an oft-cited government figure that 90,000 acres of agricultural land in Colorado are lost to urban development every year. He says it's more like 154,000 acres, but nobody is quite sure where it's all going.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast