Deja vu all over again
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February 17, 2017
I was one of the panelists on a program put on by The Project for Deeper Understanding last week. It sounds deeply cosmic, but was really a group of elected officials, the City and County Managers, the County Economic Development Director, and for some reason, me.
The topic was growth and change. It was a very informed audience who knew about as much as anybody on the panel. We are lucky in this community to have so many people engaged at that level. You are really paying attention, which is hard to do in a place with so many wonderful distractions.
Spring skiing in February is one of those distractions. This had been a great week to shirk all other responsibilities and get out on the snow. The weekend looks crumby, with the potential for more rain in addition to the holiday crowds. It didn't use to rain in January and February. It does now. It's almost like those climate change scientists might be on to something.
Anyway, the discussion about growth and change had a very familiar ring to it. It's a conversation that has gone on for 40 years without ever finding a solution. People forget that way back in the olden days, when we all drove rear-engine Volkswagens because there weren't Subarus yet, growth was a huge issue.
This time of year, they were also very bumpy lanes as the frost pushed up under the thin pavement. Only a drunk could drive a straight line.
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When Deer Valley went through the approval process in the late 1970s, it was viewed as an existential threat. There were sheep grazing at Snow Park, and a bunch of old mine ruins all over the place. That's where we dumped old appliances. And then they came along and proposed not just another ski resort, but a ski resort like none of us had ever imagined.
The assumption was that the new-fangled jetted bathtubs in the gigantic condos would suck the water system dry, and the planets would fall out of alignment. It's hard to imagine Park City without Deer Valley now. Fifteen years later, in the hearings on the Empire Pass project, people were demanding that Deer Valley be protected.
Traffic is our current existential crisis. We have been here before, too. In the mid-1980s, before 224 was widened, we managed to get in and out of town on two very narrow lanes. This time of year, they were also very bumpy lanes as the frost pushed up under the thin pavement. Only a drunk could drive a straight line. For a while, all the traffic exited town on Park Avenue because Deer Valley Drive didn't exist. Traffic was insane. My memory is that it was even worse than what we have now.
UDOT widened 224 to the present 747 runway width, and when we saw the finished product, most of us were sick. The change was shocking physically. Mentally, we all had to adjust to the idea that we lived in a town that needed, really seriously needed, a road on that scale. It was a loss of innocence. One of those, "maybe I'm really not who I always thought I was" moments. But it solved the problem for a while.
So a generation later, we're back where we started, overwhelmed by traffic. The figures are staggering: 14,000 people a day drive into Summit County; 11,000 leave; and just for good measure, 9,000 of us drive around in circles within the county. Apparently nobody can sit still around here. But that's the reality of the unsustainable and twisted economics of resort living. If you live here, you need an executive salary in Salt Lake City (or a trust-fund fortune made somewhere else entirely) to pay for it. If you work here, you need cheaper housing in Salt Lake to make ends meet. So we all drive back and forth and curse at each other at Kimball Junction. We could swap houses. Just sayin.'
It doesn't help that we keep building more, though some of the new growth will include some "affordable" housing that, to a large extent, would be beyond my reach if I didn't already have a house to sell. But the growth will require additional employees in retail, food service, and hospitality jobs permanently, and construction jobs temporarily. So the 14,000 daily influx becomes 16,000 and we are forced to find other ways to get around. That probably is a very big and ugly park-and-ride lot that will be unpopular wherever it is built. There's that loss of innocence feeling all over again.
I don't know of another resort town that has solved the problem. Aspen had a 30-year head start on us, but still depends on a workforce commuting from 60 miles down valley. For everybody who says enough is enough and moves on, there is somebody else who just discovered paradise in exactly the same place and moves in. The only constant is change.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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