The B.B. Brooks development outside of Casper was recently described by a development analyst as a “goliath,” a sprawling development, sparsely populated, but needing some of the same services any other residential development might expect.
A lesser charitable way to describe it might be “boondoggle” — at least as far as the county is concerned.
On one hand, the development is exactly what Wyoming means to so many people, a hunk of land, wide-open spaces and a ranchette spread. Yet that development on 40-acre parcels also takes roads, and other infrastructure, not to mention police and fire protection. Services like those all have a cost. Unfortunately for Natrona County, developments like B.B. Brooks don’t have the density to help offset the huge capital investments the development takes for counties and government.
The same analyst is clear: No development pays for itself. That is, the county can’t charge enough in taxes to offset the services it provides. But the more services the county provides to sparsely populated developments, the more tax burden is placed on the entire county.
Yet, this isn’t an editorial criticizing the B.B. Brooks development, which has been properly permitted and county approved. Instead, the development is a good illustration of what the county can do to prevent the losses in the future. After all, once you pave a road, it never goes away and always needs maintenance.
The county needs to consider three things as it develops: First, develop density. Second, with a growing economy and still-strong demand for housing, the county would do well to consider impact fees for developers to offset some of the costs of providing roads and services to homeowners. Finally, Natrona County needs to get serious about a master plan that helps predict and shape growth in the county.
The first part of the equation means considering density. People living closer together is more economical. That seems to make sense — more people living on a road means the cost is spread out, and the county recoups more in the form of property tax.
Second, if developers want to profit from homes and the allure of larger parcels, then the cost should be factored in. There is a cost to planning and paving streets, or getting fire coverage. There is a cost to water, sewer and treatment in some cases, too. Why should the county be expected to provide services, while developers profit from those services being extended at taxpayer expense? Impact fees, while unpopular with developers, actually capture the true expense of development.
Finally, the county, by its own admittance, probably has not done a good enough job managing its own growth. Where does it want to grow and how can it promote the concept of density? And, if development happens in the county, how can it be done so that providing services doesn’t cripple the budget? Without a clear vision, sprawl and patchwork development prove to be unintended consequences of not following a managed plan for growth.
This doesn’t mean the county loses its identity, or the ability to have tracts of wide open spaces. It just means the county can budget, plan and promote growth, and try to guard against development that will never come close to being anything more than a drain on county coffers.
Around here, people get nervous when you talk about planning and impact fees. But that reaction isn’t as bad as when you see what happens when the county starts talking about raising taxes to extend more services.