Cirque Meadows by Adam Johnson

Estes Valley Plan

Chapter 1 - The Planning Process

A. The Planning Approach


Since the mid-1980's, the Town of Estes Park and the surrounding Estes Valley have experienced rapid and complex changes in their economic base, population mix, growth characteristics, and use of their natural resources. Many of these changes are caused by forces outside the community and are difficult to recognize and influence. In an effort to further understand these influences and develop a preferred future for the Valley, the Town of Estes Park and Larimer County cooperated in preparing a strategic future planning process called the Estes Park Directions.

The purpose of Estes Park Directions process was to produce a Comprehensive Plan which could serve as a practical and long-term guide to the Town of Estes Park Board of Trustees, Town of Estes Park Planning Commission, Larimer County Planning Commission, Estes Park Urban Renewal Authority, Town staff and the Larimer County Board of Commissioners and staff, in addressing issues related to the future development of Estes Valley. The Comprehensive Plan articulates a common vision for the future; it informs citizens, landowners and developers of the goals, guidelines and desired future land use character within the Valley; and it provides a means for communication and coordination between the Town and Larimer County, as well as federal, state, and other governmental agencies.

The Plan is a citizen-based plan, outlining the common vision for the future growth and development of the Valley. The plan consists of five major components:

  • A Future Land Use Plan And Map
  • A Transportation Plan
  • An Economic Overview
  • Community-wide policies, and
  • An Action Plan
The Estes Park Directions process produced this document; the Estes Valley Comprehensive Plan. This plan is an update of the May 17, 1977 Comprehensive Plan and includes the overall "Valley." Throughout the report, the terms Town or Town of Estes Park are used to refer to areas within the town limits. The term Valley is used to refer to the 32-square-mile study area. The Valley is facing issues and problems that will, in part, shape and determine its future physical form, identity, and economic viability. Pressure from residential construction and continued building to accommodate the tourism industry are threatening to change the natural environment and quality of life in the Valley. The majority of the citizens, while acknowledging that some amount of growth is inevitable, are concerned about the rate of growth, the quality of future development, and a potential decline in the resulting quality of life.

Many citizens believe that if the community continues on its present course, the future physical, natural, and cultural make-up of the community will be significantly different from their "desired" or "preferred" future. The following list represents some of the issues identified through the public involvement process which the citizens of Estes and the Valley believe are threatening their future quality of life:

  • Lack of affordable housing,
  • Increased development pressure (subdivision into smaller lots),
  • Increased traffic congestion,
  • Noticeable reduction in open space due to new development,
  • Need for increased cooperation between political entities, including the Town of Estes Park, Larimer County, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Forest Service,
  • Potential for decline in the quality of life,
  • Concern for the future growth and vitality of the local economy,
  • Increased downtown parking problems,
  • Loss of quality within the schools, and
  • Decrease in the overall environmental quality.
This partial list identifies some of the general issues concerning Valley residents. While these issues are pressing and timely, the citizens want to create a future that is different from the one they are now facing. They wish to manage their future, and create a community that acknowledges the quality of life of local residents as well as to recognize the need to support tourism, which is the economic foundation of Estes Park.

To move from the likely future to a "preferred" future will require an active and deliberate change from the present course. In order to achieve the "preferred" future, it will be necessary to be proactive. This process requires citizens to take an aggressive role in planning their community, identifying positive elements that they wish to achieve, and actively pursuing them based on identified strategies. As was made clear early in the public engagement process, planning participants will not necessarily get everything they desire, as their actions will affect long-term community desires and, therefore, not always provide immediate results. The interim period is likely to result in some increased conflict. As the future pattern begins to emerge, however, and residents will begin to see they can affect positive change within the community, the period of conflict will evolve to one of pride, and development of a strong sense of community. Benefits will include:

  • A higher quality of life,
  • A seasonally balanced and prosperous economy for the Town and Valley,
  • A high quality physical environment, and
  • A uniform development and land use system that is predictable and results in quality development.
This Comprehensive Plan is based on an extensive public engagement process which helped to produce the Future Land Use Plan and Map, which represent direct input from citizens within the planning areas and community surveys. Future Land Use is discussed further in Chapter Four. As a way of further ensuring greater community engagement, the planning area was subdivided into seven (7) planning areas or neighborhoods. The Future Land Use Map represents the desires of each of the seven planning areas. The Future Land Use Map also sets the stage to the major related assumptions:

1. The Valley will continue to be a mountain resort community with an economy driven by a tourism base and an increasing retirement population.

2. Affordable housing issues will need to be addressed over time through regulatory provisions, bonuses, incentives, and linkages rather than through increasing the supply of land approved for high densities.

3. Downtown will remain and develop as the Valley's cultural, retail, and entertainment center.

4. Transportation/parking issues will increasingly focus on transit and the linkage between the Town and Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).

B. The Planning Process

The Estes Park Directions process identified the issues and concerns of the community. Over a three-year period, several thousand individuals participated in a series of workshops to determine the "preferred" future or direction for the community. Potential strategies and policies for achieving the future desired by the community were also identified.

From the very beginning, the Town of Estes Park wanted to develop a new and non-traditional planning process which emphasized the following elements:

  • A search for deeply-held community values and principles,
  • An emphasis on developing strategies, idealized framework plans and action items,
  • An emphasis on conflict management, rather than pure consensus building.
The process undertaken in Estes Park Directions creates a future vision and direction for development based on community values. Citizen participation and engagement was employed as the foundation for future land use planning. Community and neighborhood planning workshops were conducted to determine the community's values and principles. The Estes Park Directions process has allowed the residents of the community to express their vision and preferences for the future.

It should be noted that this planning effort focused on public participation and did not rely entirely on extensive trend analysis inventories or on extensive physical and natural existing conditions. The primary intent was to determine community values and how the community wanted to grow.

During the Spring of 1996, the Town of Estes Park notified each property owner in the Estes Valley Planning area of their current zoning and their proposed Future Land Use category. Results from this notification outreach indicated that 65% of those responding (50% response/return rate) approved the proposed Future Land Use designation for their property. In addition, three (3) workshops were held to meet again with property owners to address specific issues and concerns or answer questions regarding the Future Land Use Plan. Town planning staff re-examined every parcel for which a property owner expressed an objection or requested more information. Based on this re-examination, Town staff made several changes to the Future Land Use changes.

A joint Town and County Review team comprised of elected officials was then established to review future land use revisions which had broader policy implications to future growth and development issues. Changes by Town staff and the Review Committee are reflected on the Final Land Use Plan.

C. Phasing

The importance of the planning process dictated that it be a multi-year, multi-phased process. Below is a brief overview of the three phases.


Phase One of the Estes Park Directions project provided a series of statements, reflecting the values and visions of the community which then created a framework for long-term planning. Over a period of several months, hundreds of individuals participated in public workshops to define the future of the community. The results of that process identified the range of issues and concerns, as well as the community-suggested "preferred future."


Phase Two resulted in the Estes Park Comprehensive Plan document. Over 40 community and neighborhood workshops were held, attracting several thousand citizens. The Plan emphasizes land use policies and actions which the Estes Park Town Board, Planning Commission, Urban Renewal Authority, and Town staff believe fairly represent the needs and desires of the community. The Comprehensive Plan outlines specific strategies and a plan of action which the Valley can begin to implement during the next several years.


Phase Three consists of the implementation components of the Comprehensive Plan which will result in future zoning, subdivision, development review, design guidelines, performance standards, projects, and other public and private sector initiatives. A decision was made in the planning process that the new regulations should contain a number of overlays, or performance standards. These overlays and standard will specify how development on sensitive lands (steep slopes, flood plains, wildlife corridors, highway corridors, access, fire hazard areas, etc.) can be accommodated in both a market/cost effective manner, as well as an environmentally appropriate manner.

D. Context


Estes Park, Colorado is located 70 miles (110km) northwest of Denver at the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, and may be reached from the east by U.S. Highways 34, 36, and Colorado Highway 7. All highways are well maintained throughout the year for easy traveling. U.S. 34 from the west crosses the Continental Divide and is open generally from May through October, weather permitting. Located in the center of some of the most spectacular scenery in the Rocky Mountains, Estes Park is a popular choice for family vacations throughout the year. The Estes Valley has been known for years as a "Watchable Wildlife Area."


The Estes Valley is a unique, enclosed mountain valley. The borders of Rocky Mountain National Park form the western and northern boundary for the study area. The approximate eastern border is Crocker Ranch/Pole Hill. The southern border extends from Lily Lake, eastward into Roosevelt National Forest. Prospect Mountain is located in the center of the Valley.
The study area contains a range of political boundaries, waterways, viewsheds and topography. Given these conditions and diverse political and social forces, it was decided to divide the area into seven (7) planning areas. The seven (7) planning areas are a reflection of residents' perceptions and self-definition of their neighborhood area, and recognition of physical and natural boundaries and landmarks. Each area is described in Chapter 6.

E. National, State and Local Trends

A trend analysis was prepared to identify major National, state, regional, and local trends that may positively or negatively influence Estes Park. While trend is not necessarily destiny, it is generally important to understand the cultural and economic influences which affect an area. These trends are listed along within their potential implications for the Estes Valley.

Trends/Forces/Developments Implications for the
Estes Park Valley
International travel for business/leisure is increasing. International tourism will affect the local economy by potentially bringing a wealthier clientele.
Large numbers of the U.S. population will soon be reaching retirement age The number of retirees moving to Estes Park will increase. They will be active and involved in the community.
Workplace changes will allow more people to work at home. More "full-time" workers with jobs in other cities and states will choose Estes Park as their home.
Because of flexible work hours, people will have more leisure time. People will have more time to travel and will choose scenic areas within easy driving distance of Denver and its airport.
There is an increasing concern for environmental issues and a rebirth of social activism. Environmental issues, along with preserving and enhancing national parks, will receive increasing attention.
The U.S. population is aging. The U.S. median age in 1990 was 32.9 (it was 32.6 in 1980, 27.0 in 1970). In Estes Park the median age is 42.6 People will be spending more on health care and recreational activities to stay healthy.
More women are entering the labor force. Child care demands will increase.
The number of people in their 20's will decline in the 1990's, creating a shortage of entry-level service workers. Estes Park will rely more on the mature adult for service workers.
There will be a continuing de-concentration of population, and people will move from the cities to rural areas. Location requirements become obsolete as long as there is an airport within driving distance.
Trends/Forces/Developments Implications for the
Estes Park Valley
Tourism is anticipated to remain strong in Colorado. Mountain ski communities are actively advertising their communities to create a 12-month economy. Estes Park may continue to lengthen its shoulder season. The increase of winter visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park will aid in this effort. The town's proximity to metro-Denver will make it a primary destination for an increasing number of day visitors.
Colorado will become an active player in the global economy because of Denver International Airport & telecommunications. 7People will visit Estes Park during Denver business and convention trips, and international business people will look to invest in Estes Park for themselves and their companies.
The state demographic trend will show an increase in age. State and U.S. governments no longer provide as many services. The Town of Estes Park may see increased demand to provide social services.
Trends/Forces/Developments Implications for Estes Park
In the foreseeable future, housing and land costs will continue to escalate at a rapid pace. Service workers will be forced to live outside the community.
Traffic congestion will increase in the downtown area. The Town must develop alternative transit systems to move people in and out of downtown from outlying parking areas.
Traffic congestion will increase in RMNP. Estes Park and RMNP will need to look at alternative transportation systems.
Residents will want the arts as part of the community. The community will need to look at methods to promote the arts.
Residents of the entire Estes Valley want an active voice in Town issues. Pressure will increase to annex non-incorporated areas of the Estes Valley. Intergovernmental Agreements will become more of an issue.
Development pressure adjacent to the National Park will increase. The National Park Service will look to Estes Park and Larimer County to provide a model for how gateway communities strategically develop compatible growth management programs.
Continued development within the Estes Valley will encroach on wildlife migration routes and habitat diversity. Wildlife will be forced to migrate through developed areas, creating conflicts with homeowners.
Rental housing will remain at a premium. Service workers will be unavailable or will live and shop in other communities.
Schools will face increasing enrollment due to more families moving into the area. The school district and community need to consider options to reduce overcrowding.

F. Community Issues, Concerns and Desires


During the Phase One planning effort, approximately forty (40) individuals were interviewed to identify issues and trends in Estes Park. This provided a forum for individuals to express their opinions and viewpoints on issues they felt were important in the community.

Following the individual interview process, a series of three workshops were conducted to obtain community-wide viewpoints on the Valley's future.

The three workshops were:

  • Workshop No. 1: "Issues, Concerns, and Trends"
  • Workshop No. 2: "Hopes and Desires"
  • Workshop No. 3: "Preliminary Vision and Strategy"
The main topics of discussion during Workshops 1, 2, and 3 are summarized in the following outline:


  • The Town needs equally to serve the tourist and the local population.
  • It is important to maintain the character of Estes Valley
  • Health care in Estes Valley is good and is a contributing factor in the decision to move here.
  • The local residents' quality and diversity greatly contribute to the Town.
  • It is important to define how we can support the arts.
  • There is a need to address affordable housing for both summer workers and year-round residents.
  • The climate in Estes is wonderful.
  • The small town quality needs to be preserved.
  • There is a need to balance the competing and often conflicting needs of tourist, young residents, and the active senior community in the Estes Valley.
  • There is a need to provide affordable housing. "The gate is closing" on Estes as an affordable community.
  • There is a need to develop funds to expand winter recreation.
  • Estes needs to diversify and develop a year-round strategy for its economy.
  • Tourism is currently the "only" industry.
  • Active seniors are becoming a key segment of the population and local economy.
  • There is a need to provide a high level of service to tourists.
  • There is a need to recruit shoulder season business, (e.g. Opera, junior college, etc.)
  • It is important to explore methods to extend the shoulder season.
  • There needs to be a determination of traffic capacities - people need to ask how many cars and what level of service is appropriate for Estes Park.
  • Public transportation alternatives need to be considered.
  • The Town needs to resolve pedestrian/vehicular conflicts.
  • Move the Post Office out of downtown - it is impossible to get there, especially in the summer.
  • There is a need to address the parking problem downtown -- it will not go away.
  • Move to edge of Town
  • Structured parking
  • Implement trolley system
  • A better sign system is needed.
  • The non-urban atmosphere is appealing.
  • The Estes Valley needs more trails.
  • Trails would tie the community together.
  • The National Park is an asset.
  • Wildlife is an important element in Estes Park.
  • Scenery (view corridors) need to be preserved -- a great asset.
  • Need to maintain open space and develop a long-term plan to augment it.
  • Open space preservation systems should include: cluster housing, low density development, joint policy statements with RMNP

G. Community-Wide Survey


The intent of Phase One - Planning the Valley's Future was to engage the Estes Valley community and better understand their issues, concerns, and hopes for the future. This initial process established the basis for the Planning Consultant (Design Studios West, Inc.) and Planning staff (Estes Park Planning Department) to begin to outline a "preferred future" for the overall planning area. During the summer of 1993, the Town requested that an independent firm (Talmey-Drake Research & Strategy Inc.) conduct a survey of community attitudes to test and validate the findings of the Phase One planning process. The firm surveyed residents within the Estes Valley to test whether the broader community held similar views and values to those identified by individuals who participated in the workshops. The firm asked the community to rank support for identified projects or programs oriented towards achieving the "preferred future."

The survey findings were similar to those identified in Phase One of the process. One significant finding, which merits early discussion, is the relationship between values and concerns held by those individuals who live within Town boundaries and those who live outside, yet within the study area. While Phase One participants generally felt that these two groups held different values and concerns, the survey suggested that both groups feel very much the same about community issues and the potential direction associated with creating a long-term future. In general, the Valley contains a substantially more homogeneous population than expected at the outset of the process. From June 22 to 28th, 1995, Talmey-Drake Research conducted a second in-depth telephone survey among a random sample of 404 adults living in either the Town of Estes Park or the surrounding Estes Valley area. The survey determined the public's attitude about the quality of life in Estes Park, residents' agenda for local government, and their perspective on specific conditions and services. The survey also tested the support for various Estes Park government projects and proposals. Set forth below are the major findings that emerged from the survey.


1. Residents of Estes Park continue to rate the local quality of life in highly favorable terms, although they show less confidence about certain trends in the Estes Park area.

The 1995 Estes Park study indicated that residents of Estes Park, both in the town and in the rest of the valley, are still quite supportive of the direction the town is going. A 62% majority says things are going in the right direction, compared to only 28% who say things are now off on the wrong track. Those residents who rent rather than own in Estes Park are almost twice as likely (42%) to say things are on the wrong track as are homeowners (25%). Despite the generally high positive feelings about the direction the Town is going, the graph in Figure 1.2 illustrates a continuing modest downward trend in residents' confidence about the direction of the town.


In addition, as shown in Figure 1.3, nearly half (46%) of the residents rank the quality of life in Estes Park as "excellent," while only 3% rank the local quality of life as "poor" or "not so good."


2. Generally, residents display less confidence with trends in Estes Park in 1995 than they did in 1993. Figures 1.4 and 1.5 show the descending shift from 1993 to 1995.
When residents were asked if things in Estes Park have improved in the last few years or gotten worse, a narrow 36% plurality say things have improved, while 22% say things have gotten worse. This a modest erosion from 1993, when 42% said things had improved and 15% said things had gotten worse.


When Respondents are asked to look forward to the next few years, they are more apprehensive about the quality of life in Estes Park. Just over a quarter (27%) say things will improve, while 34% say things will get worse.


3. While a strong majority continue to rank the quality of life in Estes as either "excellent" or "good," the public's concern about growth has propelled it to the number one priority, overtaking the 1993 top priority of housing. Many residents are now very concerned about the issue of growth and its management.

When asked to volunteer the most important issue facing Estes Park today, the definitive answer among respondents is "excessive growth". More than six out of ten (63%) say it is one of the most important issues facing the area. This is a significant jump from 1993, when 35% cited it as a critical issue. No other issue even comes close to the current response on growth.

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4. Specific probing on growth issues confirms that there has been a dramatic increase in concern about growth issues among Estes Park area residents.

For instance, the 1993 study indicated that the residents were evenly split on whether growth had been excessive or not excessive. In 1995, fully two thirds of residents consider the growth rate in Estes Park to be excessive. In just two years, those saying that growth has been "much too fast" has doubled from 17% to 34%. Over one third (38%) of residents outside of the town say the rate of growth has been "much too fast," compared to 29% of town residents who say the rate of growth has been "much too fast."


There has also been a modest shift in how residents perceive the management of growth in the Estes Park area. In 1993, over half (55%) of the residents said growth was being managed well; that proportion has slipped in 1995 to 48%.


A dramatic turnaround from seven years ago surfaced when respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the statement: "if Estes Park keeps growing like it has, the quality of life will be harmed." As Figure 1.9 (If Estes Park Keeps Growing . . ) illustrates, the proportion concurring with the above statement has grown from 54% in 1993, to over two-thirds (70%) in 1995.


When respondents were asked to volunteer their specific growth concerns or ramifications, three major issues emerge: 24% mentioned housing, 24% cite environmental protection, and 27% volunteer either limit growth or develop a better growth plan.


The public's seriousness about growth is confirmed by majority support of stricter regulations for certain types of activities. For example, almost seven out of ten (69%) agree that the town should set architectural standards on the appearance of new multi-family buildings, while only 25% disagree.

Respondents also clearly favor setting a limit on the number of residential building permits issued each year (64% agree, 32% disagree).



The Estes Park Planning Survey was conducted by Talmey-Drake Research & Strategy, Inc., a public opinion and market research firm in Boulder, Colorado. The results of this survey are based on 404 random telephone interviews with residents of the Estes Valley area who are 18 years old or older. The interviews were conducted from June 22 to June 28, 1995. Quotas were established to obtain proportional representation from men and women, and to allocate half the interviews within the town of Estes Park and half outside the town but still within the valley with 586 telephone prefixes. A random sample of 404 has a 95% confidence interval of plus or minus 4.7% about any one reported percentage.

Next chapter - Chapter 2 - Our Changing Society
Background Image: Cirque Meadows by Adam Johnson. All rights reserved.