Regular readers of these pages know that we often use columns from Writers on the Range, a nonprofit that describes itself as “dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.” It’s a spinoff from High Country News, that excellent chronicler of Western issues of the kind that the Methow Valley faces: land use, water rights, wildlife management, environmental concerns, tourism, regulatory disputes, governance and just getting along with each other.
Writers on the Range produces a column every week that touches on some facet of Western life. I like using the columns because they are well written and researched, and the topics are varied and engaging. While they are not always specifically about our part of the West, the issues addressed are often so similar to ours that I think they are worthwhile for our audience to read — to learn something, and to appreciate that whatever we are dealing with, someone else is also dealing with it in another Western locale.
Such is the case this week in a Writers on the Range column that looks at a couple of innovative housing projects in Utah and Colorado. Providing accessible and affordable housing is an issue in many Western communities, and while there are a lot of ideas about how to approach the problem, they all run up against marketplace obstacles and local economic and political circumstances. It seems like each community is working in something of a vacuum, drawing on other resources but ultimately are on their own when it comes to developing workable approaches. What is successful elsewhere may not be duplicable here, and vice versa.
For that matter, what might work in Winthrop will likely be different from what works in Twisp. Both towns are currently figuring out how to utilize a much-anticipated document that was expected to provide definable actions — hence the Housing Action Plan designation. In retrospect, those expectations were too optimistic.
The towns’ separate plans were developed by a consultant under one shared contract that covered work for both towns. Hence, the delivered plans were similar in many respects, notably the data that was gathered to support recommendations. To be fair, the data collection was impressive — and a bit overwhelming, to the extent that the actual recommendations seemed almost like footnotes to a research paper. And while the demographic, economic and marketplace information was revealing, the Housing Action Plans didn’t provide what the towns were hoping for: clear, locally relevant, reasonable recommendations.
The Twisp Town Council was especially underwhelmed by its Housing Action Plan, so much so that the document has been forwarded to the Planning Commission for more parsing in hopes that something actionable can be extracted from it.
Winthrop took a different approach. Town Planner Rocklynn Culp and planning commission members recognized that their Housing Action Plan “did not adequately capture the nuance and context of local housing needs.” Culp and Planning Commission member Simon Windell took on the task of mining the lengthy report for the most relevant information, and adapting it to specific strategies that are being recommended to the Town Council (see a story about that process on page A7 of this week’s newspaper). The result is a much slimmer, easily digestible report that can be the basis for council consideration and action.
Whatever comes of the two action plans won’t be immediate, but it looks like Winthrop will have a jump start in getting some things in process that can be adopted relatively quickly.
The more you read about the affordable housing crisis — and it is no less than that in many communities — the more it becomes obvious that the solutions will be shaped by local initiatives, as they were in the communities cited in the Writers on the Range article this week. The local Housing Action Plans were simply prelude; the hard work of getting some utility out of them will depend on innovative people willing to consider scenarios that neither Twisp nor Winthrop has contemplated before.