Fast-food restaurants, strip-mall shopping centers, high-density housing: Is this the future of U.S. Highway 160 between Durango and Bayfield?
The 16-mile or so drive between the two Southwest Colorado towns is known for its mountain views and rolling agricultural fields, but it’s not likely going to stay that way forever.
In recent months, a string of high-density developments have been proposed in the highway corridor, and on top of that, residents through their district plans made it clear the area is headed for a change from its iconic open spaces.
“We hope it doesn’t look like one long strip mall,” said Naomi Riess, an organizer for Florida Mesa’s district plan. “But we also recognize there’s going to be development.”
But that might prove easier said than done.
Years ago, planners with La Plata County and the city of Durango, thinking long-term, wanted to concentrate future growth near existing development with municipal water.
“I don’t believe we should sprawl endlessly into the county,” said then-City Councilor Doug Lyon in 2006.
Many of those concerns were raised while considering how to develop a commercial corridor known as Grandview, which is expected to one day house big-box retail stores, and Three Springs subdivision, which is expected to have more than 2,000 homes.
Those areas were supposed to absorb the growth demands within La Plata County and Durango. Now, however, several new factors have sparked increased development pressure on unincorporated parts of the county, in what could mean major changes for the character of La Plata County.
Just add waterFor years, high-density development was stymied between Durango and Bayfield for lack of access to water.
In 2013, however, the La Plata Archuleta Water District started building the first pipeline to bring water out of Vallecito Reservoir to areas west of Bayfield, and with it, the potential for unprecedented growth.
Ed Tolen, general manager of the district, said population estimates for the area are expected to more than double by 2060 – from about 6,000 people to nearly 15,000.
Those new residents are going to require more water than the area currently receives from Vallecito Reservoir, Tolen said. As a result, it’s likely the district will partner with the city of Durango to build a new water-treatment plant and pipe water from Lake Nighthorse up to Florida Mesa.
“The district was not formed to enable growth; it was formed to provide existing residents who have a need for the water,” Tolen said. “But we understood, because of the water, growth would occur.”
Change is happeningRecently, a number of projects have been proposed along Highway 160 between Durango and Bayfield that signal big changes.
In April 2018, the Burkett family sought to reclassify use on their mostly undeveloped 700-acre property, about 4 miles east of Elmore’s Corner, to allow a mix of large-scale commercial and residential development.
Despite La Plata County’s planning staff recommending the proposal be denied, the county’s Planning Commission approved it. Now, if built at maximum capacity, more than 1,300 residential units and dozens of businesses could be built on the property, which is comparable in size to Three Springs.
Mac Burkett told The Durango Herald this week the family has not progressed on any development plans. But back in April 2018, she hinted of possible things to come.
“I see services going in like a nail salon, a hair salon, a Chick-fil-A, Bread,” Burkett said. “There’s just immense opportunity in this area.”
A little farther west, previous agricultural or mostly undeveloped lands are also headed for high-density projects.
A 9-acre tract owned by the Berg family was converted for homes, businesses and storage space; more than 16 acres known as the Leeder property is now slated for high-density; and last month, an 82-acre property with one home on it received approval for up to 82 homes – to name a few projects.
And the district plan says ...For the past two years, residents throughout the county were tasked with envisioning the future growth of their neighborhoods through district plans.
Riess said members of a planning group identified several “growth hubs” along Highway 160 where they would like to see new development concentrated, rather than spread out along the corridor, in areas like Elmore’s Corner and “Florida Crossing,” near County Road 225A and the Burkett property.
“We’d like to see pockets of development,” Riess said. “Aztec to Farmington, for instance, the way that’s developed, is nonstop development, on and on and on. Nobody wants to see that.”
Florida Mesa residents, Riess said, feel strongly property owners shouldn’t be told what to do with their land. But, she said residents envision a land-use system where development within the growth hubs is encouraged through incentives, and development outside those areas hold certain restrictions that make construction a little more difficult.
“That’s fairly easy to accomplish, and encourages developers to come in with good development,” she said.
But not all Florida Mesa residents agreed. In fact, the original planning group splintered into a smaller subset of residents who felt the district plan didn’t go far enough to encourage smart development, said Steve Doob, who has property within the Florida Mesa district.
“They (the planning group) seem hell bent ... on turning the strip between Durango and Bayfield into an urban strip,” he said.
Doob argued the very concept of a growth hub can be nebulous. If a developer proposed a heavy-use project just outside its boundaries, it could put the county in a tough spot to deny it.
“I don’t see how they could possibly deny other property owners from amending their property to multi-use,” he said. “It could be a court case if they allowed some and not others.”
Planners see writing on the wallDaniel Murray, a planner with La Plata County, was a little more confident in the ability to enforce the boundaries of growth hubs. Gem Village just west of Bayfield on Highway 160, for instance, is the county’s only designated growth hub, which allows for a more streamlined process for development.
But even if growth hubs are designated at Elmore’s Corner and Florida Crossing, that still means a lot of new development on Highway 160.
“That is the debate – what do we want it to look like?” Murray said. “At least, if we can concentrate the development, it will preserve character (of the area), and be the most efficient use of infrastructure and resources.”
Highway 160 itself may be the biggest barrier to new development.
Whenever new construction is proposed, the developer must receive approval from the Colorado Department of Transportation, which looks to ensure safe access onto the highway, said spokeswoman Lisa Schwantes.
CDOT realizes the demand on Highway 160 and has plans to improve the road by widening lanes and improving intersections. A study in 2006 specifically focused on what needs to happen between Durango and Bayfield. But those projects are in limbo as they depend on funding, Schwantes said.
“We try to look at the big picture and realize there are individuals trying to access the road there, and we want to make it as safe as possible for them,” she said. “We are well aware the traffic on that highway is heavy. And we also realize this is only going to increase.”