State demographer predicts growth through 2050
Pitkin County is forecast to have a significantly slower rate of growth over the next three decades than other parts of what’s known as the Rural Resort Region, according to a recent study by the Colorado State Demographer’s office.
Pitkin County is part of a cluster of counties on the Western Slope and central mountains that is projected to grow by between 5,000 and 20,000 residents between now and 2050.
Pitkin County is on the low end of that range, according to “The Population of Colorado,” a study completed by the demographer’s office in November.
The county’s population was 18,006 last year. By 2050 it is projected to grow to 23,209, the study said. That’s an increase of 5,203 residents, or 29 percent.
“Within its region, Pitkin is definitely the slowest [grower],” state demographer Elizabeth Garner said.
Regardless of how growth in Pitkin County shakes out, its neighbors are expected to grow at a faster clip. Garfield and Eagle counties are expected to gain about 65 percent in population between 2020 and 2050.
Eagle County is forecast to swell from 57,571 residents in 2020 to a population of 94,459 by 2050.
Garfield County is expected to balloon from 64,119 in 2020 to 105,711 by year 2050.
Garfield County is expected to grow because of a diverse economy that includes tourism, oil and gas extraction and agriculture, Garner said.
Garfield County also provides much of the affordable housing for workers of the Roaring Fork Valley. The resort economy of the upper valley keeps generating more jobs than it does affordable housing.
To get an idea where Pitkin County is likely headed in the future, the demographer’s office looked at its past. Pitkin County has long held a slow-growth philosophy, Garner said, and the price of real estate provides another barrier to growth.
“It’s an expensive county,” she said.
A low birth rate prevails throughout most of Colorado, including Pitkin County. In addition, Pitkin County’s population is a “smidge” older than Colorado as a whole, according to Garner. A low birth rate coupled with an older population sets the stage for slow growth.
Plus the chances for people to migrate into the county are limited because of the high cost of housing.
“It’s really hard for a young adult to live there,” Garner said.
Even though the demographer sees relatively low growth for the Aspen area, Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman believes the forecast is still too high because there isn’t a lot of developable private land.
“Eighty-seven to 88 percent of our land is federal land,” Newman said.
And that land is subject to the county’s strict land-use code. Much of the type of development prevalent in the Colorado mountain valleys — well away from municipalities and off the beaten path — is prohibited or severely limited by Pitkin County’s Rural and Remote zoning.
Pitkin County has undertaken its own studies to identify how much development can occur. In unincorporated parts of the county that are in the Aspen urban-growth boundary, there is a likelihood of seeing only 53 additional dwellings, according to the study. In the rural portions of the county, it would be realistic to see another 1,300 dwellings.
If each dwelling had 2.5 residents, which is a planning industry standard, it would add about 3,375 people to Pitkin County, lower than the rate foreseen by the demographer’s office.
Newman said much of Pitkin County’s growth will be in Aspen and Snowmass Village, but political and geographical constraints limits the potential growth there.
“Aspen has always questioned the growth rate used by the state demographer,” Newman said.
In the bigger picture of Colorado population growth, Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties are dwarfed by the changes expected in counties of the Front Range. Denver, El Paso, Arapahoe, Adams, Weld and Larimer are all expected to gain more than 200,000 residents by 2050. Boulder, Jefferson, Douglas and Pueblo counties are close behind with estimated growth between 50,001 and 200,000 residents.
In contrast, counties on the Eastern Plains, south-central and extreme northwest Colorado are forecast to have little to very modest population growth over the next three decades.
Garner said a lot of variables could alter the projections, including immigration policy by the federal government, high employment rates as well as water shortages and infrastructure inadequacies.
On the other hand, Colorado could see a lot of growth because its weather is relatively benign and it isn’t as susceptible to natural disasters as many other states. Colorado isn’t prone to earthquakes or hurricanes. While there have been numerous wildfires in recent decades, they haven’t been on the scale of those that hit California this year.
“We had a lot of natural disasters across the U.S. in the last year,” Garner said. “In the 1980s, when California was getting a lot of earthquakes, you started to see a lot of people [from there] coming here.”
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