Delta County is a rural oasis in a doughnut of suburban type development. Why has Delta County been spared the strip mall development and sprawling subdivisions that surround Montrose, Grand Junction, Glenwood and Carbondale? I think it's because ours is a nearly lawless county. We lack building codes and zoning. And so Delta County does not "protect" private property rights.
As a result, traditional capital investment avoids Delta County. Even the largest subdivision could end up with an egg production unit or a hog farm or a body shop as its nearest neighbor.
So although Delta County is beautiful and relatively friendly (Hotchkiss, of course, is the friendliest town around), and though we say we are eager for business, we lag neighboring counties. When an individual can find the water, an upscale home may be built here and there, but unless that home sits on a large tract, they have little to no protection against inappropriate (by their definition) neighbors. As a result, traditional development has bypassed Delta County.
The people of Delta County chose this path. When I moved here in 1974, zoning was referred to as the "Z" word only half jokingly. Building codes were similarly looked down on.
The 1996 Master Plan and the special development regulations were an attempt to somehow direct development and give some security to those willing to invest in such a high risk (for capital) area. We know that SDRs have a mixed record.
In my view, Delta County was lucky, for those of us who do not care for traditional asphalt and concrete development, to have been protected by its own lawlessness and by the Balkanized rural water companies -- each a small kingdom run by a monarch or two. But the consequence has been a population that earns $10,000 less per capita than the Front Range, is 10 years older, and is less educated. Another consequence has been a steady outflow of young people.
In addition to lack of regulation, we've also been lucky, until recently, to have had a large, well-capitalized underground coal industry. The county, with its anti-government attitude, does not acknowledge what made the coal industry such a wonderful neighbor: Federal regulation, with the state acting as a deputy to the federal government in certain areas. The hated feds protected the health and lives of the miners and the mine neighbors, and kept the air and water clean. If not for federal regulation, the SH 133 corridor would be an ugly mess with heaps of waste coal and polluted streams.
Looking ahead, we may not be so lucky. Coal is mined in an intensive way, extracting an enormous number of Btu's with relatively little land disturbance. What disturbance there is is underground. By comparison, natural gas and oil are spread out, requiring lots of roads, drill pads, and unlike coal -- threatening the quality of the water. And instead of the efficiency of rail transportation for coal, gas and oil put huge trucks on our narrow roads.
In addition, the oil and gas industries have a lot more political clout than the coal industry, which means lighter federal and state regulation and more damage to those unlucky enough to be its neighbors.
So while underground coal mining fit in well with rural life, and accommodated recreation of all sorts by not getting in the way, gas and oil production are threats to other economies. So what is my advice to the planners? There's nothing any conceivable Board of County Commissioners could do to minimize the harm oil and gas would do to competing economies given this county's DNA and the county commissioners that DNA elects. In the BoCC's view, gas and oil development is a successor to the coal industry. The board does not understand that while both are about fossil fuels, they are very different beasts.
Luckily for us, natural gas remains well below $3 per MMBtu. I've been told that in our difficult terrain, gas prices would have to rise above $4 to make large scale drilling economic. The same forces that took down coal -- efficiency and high technology (which enabled fracking) -- will eventually also take down natural gas, as wind and solar and batteries become cheaper and more reliable. And that evolution may spare the east end of the county.
In sum, Delta County is at this moment a politically and economically helpless place, without elected leadership with vision or clout. But there is one thing the BoCC can do: NOT adopt zoning and building codes. Cheap gas may continue to protect us. That's the roll of the dice. But if we make Delta County safe for strip mall and subdivision developers, we are goners.
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