The Tipping Point

One day last May, I walked around the Victorian mining town-turned-ski town where I live and asked locals in their 20s and 30s how they felt about development. Their answers included ample griping over rent and crowds, the occasional “rich motherfuckers” shoutout to the home-theater set and genuine fear of suburban sprawl despite being an hour-and-a-half from the nearest city. Though I didn’t frame it this way, each conversation seemed to revolve around a much broader and perplexing question: Has development made it harder or easier to live here?

To make his case, one particularly impassioned dirt biker told me, “I look at development as an invasion,” a sentiment that, ironically, may be our best parallel to the state of affairs in 1972. Up until then, development in Breckenridge and many like-minded towns around the West had been viewed as not only sensible but essential. Breck’s town board wanted to generate revenue and infrastructure to support what was then a fledgling ski area. Developers were lured from Denver with the promise of easy profits, and the locals — even the hippies, who formed a powerful constituency at the time — supported it.

Then came the Moby Dick of all condo complexes — or, as fifth-generation Breckenridge resident Robin Theobald called it, “the tipping point.” It wasn’t just that it covered half a block and stood more than three stories tall, it was that the block happened to be in the historic part of town, instead of across the river where all the other condo complexes had been going up. Imagine a shark entering the dolphin net. The town’s entire vibe changed. Hippies started running for office. Some of them won. For the first time, development — a word that symbolizes progress in every other use — took on a negative hue.

Of course, just like cold fingers never stopped a gold miner, the anti-development vibe didn’t stop speculators from turning open spaces into giant sardine cans. During the ’70s and early ’80s, Breckenridge approved so much density in condominium complexes — primarily to outside investors, since no city banks would loan to anyone from the High Country — that nearly every developer I spoke with lamented the entire era. Finally, in 1997, a valley-wide master plan was drafted to cap development and combat backcountry sprawl by drawing density back toward town, the very place it had worn out its welcome years before.

As it turned out, the hippies who launched the so-called “community development” movement never could have known what would grow from their resistance four decades later. A quantitative history has improbably given way to a qualitative future. Breckenridge now has a whopping 44 different land-use districts, each with special development codes. Victorian aesthetics, once an afterthought, are held sacred. Large-scale projects that were approved 10 years ago would never fly today. “Very frustrating” is how one developer described his profession’s current state.

On the other hand, a town-subsidized housing development just went up near the town-subsidized rec center. My 34-year-old friend bought a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath townhome with a two-car garage for $187,000, because he was poor enough and local enough to qualify. The government subsidized his house to the tune of $70,000. It’s a nice sidebar, but as build-out looms, the larger story remains: only one in four homes is occupied year-round.

Despite all the differences, a lot of things haven’t changed in 40 years. Developers, chiefly male, then as now, still want to be seen as white-hat cowboys, and they still covet political influence. Due to tightened belts and heightened public antennae, they’re held to higher standards, but if you can navigate the maze, you’ll still make millions.

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if there were no ski resort in our town … or, in a less crazy stretch, if our ski resort didn’t happen to be the most-visited in America. Would we be Estes Park, a gorgeous town with badass mountains that is jammed in the summer but nearly empty in the winter? Would life be better? Would my wife and I still be able to survive here?

Theobald, for one, thinks all the development made it easier to live in Breckenridge. “Certainly,” he said. But don’t get him started on Ullrfest parade floats. Time was, people who lived nearly two miles high could poke a little fun. Yet as soon as the party grew, newbies started taking offense and then the fun was gone, as if sucked dry by a vacuum. “I think the town lost its sense of humor,” he said.

I wondered if development might be partially to blame for that. Theobald, standing in a field of grass and aspens, pondered the question in his suspenders and bandana. “I suppose it has to be,” he said.

Devon O’Neil covers sports for ESPN.com and freelances for magazines ranging from Outside to Parade. He lives in Breckenridge. His blog, Brexico, can be found at mountaingazette.com.