by Mark Williams, Durango, Colorado
Durango, like most Western towns, is surrounded by wild places and open vistas that are central to its identity. In the early 2000s, organized wildlife advocates and anti-growth proponents had enough support to defeat one large-scale community development project, River Trails Ranch, while a second project, Three Springs, was approved. The developers of a third project, Twin Buttes, knew they needed to propose extensive sustainable features and land donations to succeed, and underwent one of the most contentious approvals ever in Durango. Twin Buttes eventually achieved its first major approval in 2009, but just completed its first house in the fall of 2017. All three projects, but especially the Twin Buttes project, created a blueprint of how to pass a large-scale community development project in a western town.
Durango, a town of 19,000 in the Four Corners region of Colorado, is equal parts Colorado Mountain Town and Anytown USA. There are more outdoor and tourist amenities than can reasonably be listed here and the accompanying issues to go with them. The features that attract people to Durango also hem Durango in topographically and help make affordable housing one of the city’s highest priorities. This reverence for the outdoors and open spaces and the need for housing creates a tension: what should we preserve, what should we develop, and where is the middle ground? The median home price reached $550,000.
Three Community Projects
In the early 2000s, renowned planner and New Urbanist Peter Calthorpe created a conceptual design for a new community in the Animas River Valley north of Durango, the mixed-use River Trails Ranch project, with 800 units. Around the same time, the Growth Fund of the Southern Ute Tribe began planning another community, Three Springs, with close to 2,000 Energy Star-rated residential units and a considerable medical and commercial presence. The Growth Fund ended up with a robust new community in Durango, but River Trails Ranch died in the planning process. Both projects were greenfield New Urbanist communities on the edge of Durango, and both proposed walkable, compact mixed-use developments. Well organized wildlife advocates and anti-growth proponents united in opposition against River Trails Ranch at the start, while the opposition to Three Springs was much more subdued for various reasons.
The owners of a third location a few miles west of downtown then called the McIntyre Ranch, paid attention as the River Trails Ranch-Three Springs process unfolded during the early and mid-2000s. When these owners proposed a development at the McIntyre Ranch, to be called Twin Buttes, the potential difficulties were numerous. Durango, like most Western towns, is surrounded by wild places and open vistas, and many of the opponents of River Trails Ranch, who were empowered by their defeat of the Calthorpe project, targeted this new proposal as well to keep out what they perceived as a threat to the Durango they valued.
The McIntyre Ranch
The landowners, the Pauls family of Telluride, knew the only development that would survive the public review process would need to check all the right boxes: significant open space dedications, new trails, green building, support for transit and affordable housing, and extensive environmental studies. All of this was on top of the massive infrastructure needed to cover a mountainous area full of gullies and topography that ranges from 6,600 to 7,740 feet.
What transpired was a multi-year review process and one of the most contentious approvals for any project around Durango, with too many meetings to count and more than 90 hours of public hearings at Planning Commission and City Council alone. A proxy battle was fought for months on the Letters to the Editor page of the Durango Herald, with many voices, all adamant, on both sides. For every letter in praise of organic farms, green building or attacks on NIMBYs, there was an equal number of letters pleading to leave the land undeveloped, warning against traffic growth and of the inevitable high housing prices that would come. After a debate with precedent for intensity or duration, City Council approved the first step, the one that allowed the project to proceed, with one dissenting vote in 2009.
The Twin Buttes development is on 600 acres of Ponderosa and Pinion-Juniper forest, with two large buttes, the eponymous Twin Buttes, rising over the land. The Pauls family of Telluride, which bought the ranch in 1992, hired fellow Telluride resident and developer Eric Flora to lead the project. The project allows 655 residential units, plus another 135 accessory dwelling units, as well as commercial and community uses. In 2017, the first house was finally completed.
Twin Buttes is a Planned Development (what would be a PUD in most places), and the extensive obligations of the project were negotiated between the developer, staff and City Council through a three-stage process. How the developer meets those obligations is usually determined by a development agreement that city staff can change at the administrative level. The Twin Buttes development agreement is more than 40 pages long and contains details down to the level of permitted civic and agricultural uses, with hobby farming livery operations and livestock operations allowed in some Twin Buttes areas, and restaurants, hotels or a museum allowed in others.
The Pauls and Flora knew that a project in such a unique location required special sensitivity to the environment. The defeat of the River Trails Ranch project was still fresh in their minds, and Durango residents with a dim view of growth had considerable influence and even representation on City Council. The anti-Twin Buttes camp was activist and well organized, and one notorious adventure included an anti-project city councilor who took an unauthorized expedition onto the property.
The development team knew it needed to do more than just check off all of those right boxes mentioned above—they believed the Twin Buttes model was the right way to build, and they wanted the project to respect its surroundings as much as any greenfield development could. Flora assembled a project team with some of Colorado’s foremost green building professionals including renowned Boulder architect David Barrett, FAIA, as the lead designer. David Johnston, the author of the sustainable building book Green From the Ground Up, was involved in devising the proposed construction standards. The number of sustainable measures that Flora, Barrett, Johnston, and others built into the project is unprecedented in Durango and the features designed into the project included:
Fire mitigation and thinning.
Twin Buttes is in the Wildfire-Urban Interface, and the city required a fire management plan that included forest thinning and clear zones around houses. The thinned logs, as well as excavated boulders and rock, are kept onsite and used in Twin Buttes construction. Twin Buttes is also allowed to build a temporary sawmill to help with the reuse of the thinned wood.
Wildlife Management Plan
Twin Buttes is home to deer, elk, bear and a variety smaller animals and many bird species, and this was one of the major concerns of anti-Twin Buttes Durangoans. The applicants hired a local consultant, Ecosphere Consulting, to craft a plan that took an unflinching look at the project’s wildlife impacts and to provide mitigations. Ecosphere’s plans and the testimony of the plan’s authors during public hearings was not all positive for the Twin Buttes developers, and that integrity helped give the project credibility in the eyes of City Council. The Wildlife Management Plan identified migration corridors to leave undeveloped and sensitive areas for winter habitat and nesting, including for elk and for peregrine falcons that nest on cliffs in the area. The nesting areas are closed to the public seasonally to protect wildlife.
Home energy efficiency standards
When the first plan was first developed in 2007 by David Barrett, the lead designer, called for houses with a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) rating of 50 or less. At the time, the City used the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), and the 50 HERS rating was roughly 50% more efficient than the adopted code. Barrett and David Johnston, the green builder, developed an extensive menu of options for achieving the HERS rating of 50.
Passive solar design and rooftop orientation are also features that are designed for each house. The Twin Buttes Design Review Committee, which reviews both design and energy features, often suggests tweaks not only to design but to ways that can improve energy efficiency as well. Passive solar is not a requirement, but some early designs maximized passive solar gain by altering the orientation of the house.
The highest profile green measure was the preservation of 80 percent of the project as permanent open space, with most of it dedicated to the City, and the construction of single-track trails linking Twin Buttes to other trail systems, including downtown Durango. Twin Buttes protected approximately 480 acres of land, and much of that land borders BLM and State of Colorado-owned open space. The city works with the State to coordinate the seasonal wildlife closures. Twin Buttes, the City of Durango and a local nonprofit called Trails 2000 work collaboratively to manage the annual seasonal closures and the public trails that link Twin Buttes to Durango and other trails.
Organic crops were an integral an active part of the Twin Buttes identity, even as other parts of the project languished in the economic downturn. The combination of farms and community gardens will eventually contain more than five acres of land to produce food for Twin Buttes residents. The vegetables and greens the farms produce are used in local community-supported agriculture (CSA) and for farm-to-table produce in several local restaurants. Twin Buttes residents and CSA members will eventually have first dibs on some of the farm products.
The Twin Buttes gardeners also keep bees….
Other Twin Buttes obligations include infrastructure, affordable housing and land dedications for schools, with donations of several acres as a site for Durango’s charter high school, Animas High School, and for a future public elementary school. Animas High is in a semi-permanent facility near the Twin Buttes entrance but will relocate when the infrastructure to the permanent internal site is completed.
All multi-family developments in Durango are subject to the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, called Fair Share. The ordinance calls for 16 percent of the units to be affordable housing, and developers can meet that obligation in other ways such as a land donation or a fee-in-lieu payment. The city is working with Twin Buttes to meet its Fair Share obligations, and the preferred option of both the city and the developer are actual units that the developer can design and build.
Change in management
As the economy began its slow climb out of the Great Recession, a new team took over the day-to-day management of the project. Bob Delves, the former two-term mayor of Mountain Village, Telluride’s neighbor, assumed control of the day-to-day operations. Whereas Flora’s legacy was to get the project approved, Delve’s led the project to the stage where houses start to rise.
Under new management, Twin Buttes proposed different ways to meet efficiency obligations that met environmental commitments but in an often less intensive way. For example, to obtain a HERS rating of 50 or less involved an extensive review of potential energy reduction options. The developer can now model the efficiency of new houses by using a U.S. Department of Energy efficiency rating system called Rescheck. Rescheck is less labor intensive than the original checklist system devised to track green features, which saves time and money while still providing an energy-efficient home that meets the original green intent of the development.
The 2015 International Energy Conservation Code caught up to Twin Buttes energy aspirations, and the new code serves as the baseline for energy modeling. Every unit at Twin Buttes must meet or exceed the 2015 IECC code to get a building permit. Some houses exceeded the 2015 code standards by as much as 17 percent, and the City of Durango continues to meet with the development team to find ways that allow the development to meet its original goals.
The city and Twin Buttes approached the allocation of the 655 units with flexibility as well. As the project engineers and planners field check the original platting even more closely, they are changing some lot configurations, and some single-family lots are becoming duplex or townhouse lots. How these 655 units are allocated will continue to evolve as the project develops over the years, allowing the developer the ability to respond to changing conditions as varied as changing market conditions and topographical challenges.
One of Twin Buttes major milestones, since Delve’s took control, was the completion of the infrastructure, which cost more than $10 million. Drainage and water quality are especially tricky, as the basin required massive detention areas. In a situation that is unique for Durango, the impervious surface for each lot is recorded as the lot is developed so the city can track the total impervious coverage. The total impervious area in the development will be capped, requiring additional foresight in project planning, or the project will risk a serious obstacle to building in later stages.
Twin Buttes Today
Twin Buttes was receiving its final approvals right around the time that the global economy went into its tailspin. Twin Buttes got a major approval in 2009, but for several years after that the project was largely dormant. In 2014, the final steps to begin building were approved, and the project started to go vertical in 2017. The first house was completed in the fall of 2017 and are expected to go under contract soon. More than a decade after submitting to the city, residents will begin to occupy the first houses. That pace picked up quickly as the City issued building permits for more than 20 other units, and about half the lots in the first phase—or filing in Twin Buttes nomenclature—of development sold. The first homes in large part are defining the Twin Buttes character and tend to be large and expensive, but even more townhouses and multifamily units are on the drawing board. Single-family homes prices are coming in at $300-$350 per square foot.
The city and development team always envisioned a long-term buildout of up to 40 years for the project. Durango, for all of its charms and in part because of them, is an expensive place to live. Population growth in Durango is steady, but nothing like the explosive development on Colorado’s Front Range, so it will take time for the community to absorb these many new residents.
How Did Twin Buttes Make It?
After reading the above list of what the developers promised, what the city required, and the expense of it all, it is clear that creating a large greenfield project requires deep pockets, savvy and persistence. The Durango public now expects many of the features Twin Buttes incorporated that was not present in the past. However, the high level of public involvement is here to stay and requires very high-quality projects with public benefits.
The Durango City Council became increasingly cognizant of the financial burdens prospective developers must face, and the city is analyzing those impacts and how to reduce them while still maintaining quality development. The city will review its Fair Share standards in 2018, for example, as an area where the city could do things differently while still gaining a public benefit through affordable housing. Quantifying green building cost-related increases may vary between builders, but one builder familiar with Twin Buttes estimates they could increase construction costs of $300,000 by $12,000 to $18,000, or four to six percent. The flip side, of course, is the lower energy bills for the life of the house.
Sales at Twin Buttes are brisk, and the developers are planning to get approval for the second phase of the project this winter. The second phase will bring more large-scale building, and with multi-family housing and commercial and community spaces getting close. The economy is doing well and many potential buyers from Southern California, Texas and Arizona are poking around Twin Butte recently, so the developers want to capitalize on the good times. No new master-planned communities of the size or scope of Twin Buttes, Three Springs or River Trails Ranch are on the drawing board right now, but these three developments provided the blueprint for what it takes in Durango for large-scale new development.
Mark Williams is a planner for the City of Durango and has worked in Atlanta, Denver and now in Durango, where he focuses on project development and affordable housing issues. Mark also works on design review and manages the Twin Buttes project development for the city. He is the Southwest Regional Representative for the Colorado Chapter of the American Planning Association, so please feel free reach out if you are a planner in southwest Colorado. Mark also throws a great holiday party for local planners.
Published June 2018