'New Rich' Clash With Rocky Mountain Locals

Pricey second homes are driving up housing costs in tony resort towns, forcing many residents to move out.

The name itself sounds like a paradox: the Teton County Housing Authority.

One half conjures up an image of craggy peaks rising from the wide Western plains. The other, of high rises and gritty inner-city neighborhoods.

And therein lies the heart of an issue that is dividing resort communities throughout the Rocky Mountain West.

From Aspen, Colo., to Park City, Utah, middle- and lower-class residents are increasingly being nudged out as wealthy second homeowners come in and drive housing costs through the roof. In fact, the average single-family home sells for $700,000 in Jackson. In Park City, the figure jumps to $784,000.

This trend, building over the past few decades, has now become as widespread here as skis and snow tires. Towns such as Jackson and Vail, Colo., are being forced to either build affordable housing or face losing many of their citizens - and much of their local character. And as telecommuting allows even more urban dwellers to head to the West, the split between the two groups is only growing.

"It's happening more and more across the West," says William Gribb, director of the graduate planning department of the University of Wyoming in Laramie. "Communities are being developed more for the new rich, who have more spendable income than those living there." The money for second homes is "not coming from the West, but from metropolitan areas."

In Jackson, the escalating home prices have some local officials worried that the city could lose its vitality. "The middle-class family takes the hit," says Bill Knight, director of the housing authority. Because housing prices are not in sync with salaries, "Jackson Hole cannot attract middle class people to live here. Without that cornerstone of the community, we have a hard time recruiting law-enforcement officers, teachers, and nurses."

Mr. Knight is not alone in his concerns. Mary Chapman, a senior fellow at the Center for the New West in Boulder, Colo., has monitored growth-related changes in southwest Colorado over the past five years. "There has been a decline or stagnation with the average income, as housing costs have at least doubled or tripled," she says. Income has decreased as traditional jobs, connected to ranching or farming, are replaced with plentiful - but low-paying - service sector jobs tied to the resort industry.

Indeed, the rising real estate prices have made it more difficult for ranchers to sustain a way of life that dates back to the beginnings of America's Old West. "Ranching is a multifamily enterprise," says Ms. Chapman. "If the next generation can't get into a house ... it causes a cracking of that culture and the way the land has been used."

For this reason, the exodus from farming and ranching jobs can profoundly change the nature of a town. Ranching communities work best as part of larger whole, Chapman adds, so "when ranches are taken out of production, it affects the neighbors."

Park City, for one, is struggling with its sense of identity. The adventurous, pioneering mentality that pervaded this Utah ski town in the 1970s is now much harder to find. Although the community has worked to control its growth through planning, many residents say it has been much harder to maintain the town's carefree, close-knit atmosphere. Today, with Park City still riding an economic upswing that began in the early 1990s, "You don't show up with a pair of Levi's and a $20 bill and expect to make it," says Toby Ross, the city manager.

THE Delta-Montrose-Ouray Valley in southwestern Colorado is facing many of these same challenges. Located roughly 50 miles from Aspen, Telluride, and Crested Butte - all well-known ski resorts - the valley is experiencing their development spillover. "People build here not because they want to live here, but to own property. They'll live here for two weeks out of the year to ski," Chapman says.

The Delta-Montrose-Ouray Partnership, a group of citizens and experts concerned with development, worries that this type of growth will gradually change the valley from a vibrant community to a residential area that acts as a resort bedroom community.

But the partnership is working to protect and plan for the future. The valley, incorporating 18 towns and a population of roughly 95,000 people, has been identified as a prime agricultural area. Chapman, who is a member of the partnership, hopes that it will not lose its historic ties to the land. By moderating growth and helping resource businesses [ranching, logging, and farming] we hope that may be our saving grace from this urbanization," she says.

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