Durango officials have every reason to be careful about extending city water service

City Councilor Christina Rinderle gets it. In a joint study session last week between Durango city councilors and La Plata County commissioners about extending city water in the Grandview area, she expressed her fear of seeing “billboards and auto-body shops” from Durango to Bayfield.

A colorful way to put it, perhaps, but it goes to the core of a question city officials need to get right: How to prevent uncontrolled sprawl just outside city limits. In practice, that means what to do about Grandview.

But what the city needs to stress is that water is the means to an end, not the answer in itself. And there is no reason to rush. Getting this right is far more important than getting it done.

The question of Grandview matters to more than just the folks who live around there. Durango essentially has four front doors. Their appearance and what they say about the town are important to its residents, to its economy and to its future.

On the north, south and west, topography and some good political decisions have largely set what will be the final outlines of town in those directions. But that topography was handed to us, and those decisions were mostly ones the city could make by itself. To the east, there are few natural obstacles to growth and any land-use constraints have to involve county government.

County development standards are more appropriate for truly rural areas than those with greater densities. Some people like the convenience of being near town – but not more stringent city regulations – and develop property just beyond the city limits. After a while, the density becomes more urban than rural but without city infrastructure or order. The result can be a hodgepodge.

The city can address some of that through annexation and applying its standards going forward. But annexation of residential areas has obvious limits; it burdens city services and costs money. And absent other controls, annexation simply resets the boundary and allows the process to repeat itself.

What is needed instead is cooperation between the city and county to come up with agreed-upon rules for buffer zones and restrictions on growth near the city limits. Without that haphazard urbanizing could consume more and more of the county.

But those two entities have fundamentally different approaches to development and a profoundly different ethos when it comes to land-use regulation. A common point of reference and interest would help.

In Grandview, that could be water. The city has it, and nearby county landowners want it. With that, the county might agree to enacting land-use rules to forestall future sprawl in the area. After all, even agreeing to lower density than might otherwise be allowed, landowners could still develop their land to a greater degree than they could with no or limited water supplies.

Done right, such an arrangement could benefit all involved and stop unplanned and unorganized development at the city’s edge.

Done wrong, however, supplying city water to unincorporated parts of the county could fuel exactly the kind of mindless sprawl that rightly worries Councilor Rinderle. Even in a weak economy, there is no reason to offer incentives for unwanted behavior.

As it is, the real estate market has given local officials time to address this with care. There are residents in the Grandview area with failing wells who need the water, but there is no clamor for new construction. Between the Three Springs development and the planned construction at Twin Buttes, Durango has about 2,800 residential units already approved. People want and deserve other choices, of course, but demand for housing is not driving the discussion.

The idea of extending city water further into Grandview has been talked about for years. And now may be the time to decide it. City officials just need to be clear in their talks with the county that the point is to control sprawl, not to enable it.