Aspen Daily News Column - Mick Ireland

Have we won the war on growth?

Aspen, the dog chasing the car of managed growth, has finally caught up. Now what?

An election season is a good time to ask “now what?” about a lot of things. For more than 40 years, city and county elections have revolved around growth, how fast should we grow and, if we are growing too fast, what should be done to contain growth lest it consume our mythic and iconic “small town character.”

Notwithstanding seasonal complaints about traffic and tourists and our well established ability to extend the Food and Wine Festival by adding an extra 360 days of Whine Festival, the facts at hand pretty well say this much about the effort to contain growth:

We won.

Winning isn’t everything but the available facts show Aspen’s population growth has slowed to just about what every citizen survey suggests it should be, about 1.2 percent per year. 

In 30 years of surveys with which I am familiar, citizens tell their government again and again they want less growth but not zero growth.

The data for the last 15 years says we have grown at a rate of 1.2 percent annually, the last 25 years shows growth of 1.3 percent.  

At the present rate, Aspen would double in population in about 58 years.

All of which brings us to the debate about water supply, water rights and whether we will ever need to exercise the option to build storage in the Maroon or Castle Creek valleys.

And that depends, for the most part, on climate change and population growth. The precise impact of climate change is hard to predict – we could be warmer and dryer or warmer and wetter over the next 50 years.

Population growth tracks very well with water consumption and the city’s own report uses estimates consistent with the population growth of 1.2 percent.

The problem is, we are probably in for even slower growth than the city’s estimate. If so the need for additional water storage may be overstated.  Consider the following:

— Aspen’s affordable housing program has, over the last 25 years, added more than 1,500 new units with an average of 1.8 persons per unit or about 2,700 residents. There is no reasonable expectation that the next 25 years will see comparable growth in affordable housing. The “low hanging fruit” – flat, developable sites – has basically been harvested and the cost of adding many more units is prohibitive.

— Aspen’s free market housing is also running out of developable sites and, more importantly, continues to be converted into part time use as second homes or vacation homes.  A majority of free market homes and condos are now owned by people who don’t live here and free market neighborhoods continue to go dark. 

— Births in Aspen and its immediate surrounds are declining.  The entering class in the school district remains small, ranging from 90 to 100 children in any given year. Our aging population is increasingly less likely to have more children.

— Tiered water rates adopted in the last decade have successfully discouraged excess use.

Estimated populations for 2036 (17,000 in one report, 11,000 in another) are too high given our slow growth that’s likely to slow even further as gentrification continues to hollow out most of old Aspen (river to river to the mountain) and affordable housing creation slows. My own estimate is that Aspen will be home to about 9,000 of us at most in 20 years.

All this together suggests, absent an extreme climate outcome, we won’t need additional storage in 20 years (by 2036) and may not need it in 50 years or even 100 years.

Climate change is the other imponderable. If we are much hotter and dryer, a population of 9,000 might not be able to rely on a snowpack to store its water as we do now.

Will we be a ski resort needing much water at all if things are so warm and dry? If there is no snowpack, no ski industry and no forest in which to play, the wilderness we cherish and the resort community itself may be just a memory, another chapter in the boom and bust cycle that started with silver mining more than a century ago.

We might already be living in the Good Old Days or even the Last Days of the Resort Era. Those 50 or so Aspen children born here this year, I wish you luck and hope you get to live the good life we have had here. 

Aspen Daily News

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