The construction crane is the most common city bird. There is a labor shortage. New residents come for the climate and for the hyperactive job market in construction and gambling.
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Thousands of stucco-walled, red-roof-tiled homes on artificial lakes are sold for nearly half the price they would fetch in metropolitan Los Angeles. But putting a city that may soon be bigger than Detroit in an area that receives only four inches of rain a year has forced a reckoning. Unlike Arizona, which requires proof of a year water supply before development can go forward, Las Vegas promises water to virtually all new developments -- regardless of the prospect of shortages.
The city's initial reaction to its water deficit, in the early 's, was to put a moratorium on new development.
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But after coming under heavy pressure from home builders and hotels, Las Vegas again opened the gates to unrestricted growth in Following a path taken by Los Angeles when it tripled in size near the turn of the century, Las Vegas is going after distant water supplies in the fragile desert, and it has threatened to sue if it does not get a change in how water in the West is allocated. Some new Denver suburbs are projected to run out of water within a decade. But what people living along the Front Range in Colorado complain about most is the loss of open space.
From Fort Collins in the north to Colorado Springs in the south, a swath of beige-colored, two-story homes and boxy megastores has been planted along a mile strip, with Denver in the middle. The last Denver boom, nearly 20 years ago, came from big oil, mining and coal companies, ripping open the Rockies to meet energy needs. This time, it is nonpolluting industries, and Denver has become the cable television capital of the world. Nearly 80 percent of Utah's two million people live along an mile urban strip abutting the Wasatch Mountain Front.
There is full employment, with thousands of new jobs in high-tech firms.
But it has come at a price. The New York-New Jersey metropolitan area has better air quality than the Salt Lake Valley when measured for carbon monoxide, one of the main components of unhealthy air. City officials say that unless Salt Lake acts to limit sprawl and curb auto emissions, the face it will present to the world during the Winter Olympics could be obscured by a soup of pollutants. Seattle, often rated the most livable city in America, now ranks among the top five worst cities for traffic congestion. But many fear that Seattle, as it goes through yet another enormous population surge prompted by job growth at the Boeing Company and the Microsoft Corporation, will become a city where only the upper middle class can afford to own homes.
The Microsoft millionaires, about 3, past or present employees of the software company who made it big on stock appreciation, are a dominant obsession in the area as they build waterfront techno-castles on Lake Washington. But with the state projecting that , more people will move into the Seattle metropolitan area in just the next four years -- the biggest growth spurt since the monumental hiring binge at Boeing during World War II -- political leaders say there will be a severe shortage of moderate-priced housing in the area.
American cities form in a blink, and that is particularly true in the West. California had the first big wave of auto-driven urban centers in the West. They promised the best of all worlds: orderly city life just down the road from orange blossoms or walnut groves. It changed almost overnight. In the 's, California's population was at 4 million -- not far from where Colorado is today -- and Los Angeles County was still one of the country's leading agricultural producers. By , California's population hit 32 million, and more than , jobs, net, disappeared from the state in the 's. The ironic highlight, perhaps, was a report issued by the Bank of America on the dangers of California-style growth.
Titled ''Beyond Sprawl,'' the document stunned some people with its blunt conclusions. The report had all the more power, coming from a bank that had financed much of the sprawl. But just as California was having second thoughts, the newly robust Western cities were going down a path taken by the Golden State. Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and some Denver suburbs went on road-building binges and offered cheap land, low taxes and minimal interference for developers.
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Water, always a problem in the arid West, was offered with few restrictions. Phoenix completed the Superstition Freeway, going east; bulldozers followed.
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It is sometimes called the ''Cul de Sac Freeway,'' because a nearly mile stretch of developments has built up on both sides of the road. The huge new developments that are taking root here lure buyers with a promise of a secluded desert life style. And indeed, coyotes and javelinas dash across fresh pavement. Herons swoop for prey on golf course lakes. But there is less seclusion and less desert with every passing hour. Finished in , it cleared an eight-lane path through the forest east of Lake Washington and encouraged development in the Cascade foothills. What road building did to further sprawl, certain tax structures did to create budget crises.
Utah has passed a law that stipulated that as property values rise, the tax rate of a given area must fall. It has also limited what localities can charge developers for new services like roads and sewers. More people in the area will likely increase the number of dangerous fires, since research shows that humans cause 8 in 10 wildfires.
P Rose, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. County supervisors have no excuse for ignoring those risks. The new freeway and development would block the movement of mountain lions, which are already struggling to maintain genetic diversity because of existing highways and development.
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Urban Sprawl: Pro and Con
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