PRAIRIE HOME COMPANIONS

SOME RESIDENTS OF A TINY PRAIRIE BURG HAVE BIG-CITY NIGHTMARES.

It's becoming a familiar story: A Colorado municipality tires of the increasingly frequent traffic snarls and tract-home developments popping up on the edge of town. Residents' complaints grow louder, and sooner or later somebody proposes passing a law limiting growth.

Except this time, it's not just Boulderites complaining. It's the residents of Elizabeth, a tiny plains town about forty miles southeast of Denver.

Angry by what they see as their elected officials' readiness to become another bedroom community for Denver, some of the town's 950 residents are attempting to place an initiative on the local ballot that would limit annual growth to 5 percent. The move is being fought aggressively by the town manager, Dean Salisbury, who contends that such a restriction "would eliminate growth. There's not a builder in the world who would touch Elizabeth," he says.

The citizens of Elizabeth are hardly unique in hoping to control growth by attempting an end run around their elected officials. A study being released this week by the Colorado Municipal League shows that a dozen Colorado cities and towns will have some sort of growth-limiting initiative on this November's ballot.

Some of them are narrow in focus. In Greeley, Golden, Cripple Creek, Loveland, Vail and Parker, citizens will vote whether to accept specific proposed annexations into their cities. Another initiative--this one in Greenwood Village--would require that any annexations to the exclusive south Denver community be approved by a popular vote.

The most restrictive measures, however, are those initiatives that would place a specific cap on the number of new buildings in a community. According to the municipal league, Boulder, Longmont, Lafayette and Golden residents all will decide this fall whether to curb growth.

Each of the towns or cities in question is hoping to rein in population explosions that are seen as having changed the character of the communities. But Elizabeth's initiative, if it is approved for the ballot, would be the first in Colorado to prevent growth's foundations from being poured in the first place.

Growth is not a hypothetical issue in Elizabeth. Founded in 1890, the town's size (about 350 acres) and character have remained relatively unchanged for a century. (Its three main roads were first paved in 1991.) Recently, however, that stability has been threatened.

Parker, to the north of Elizabeth, and Castle Rock, to the west, are two of the fastest-growing municipalities in the country, filling mostly with commuters from Denver and Colorado Springs. As these communities become more crowded, people seeking commutable towns with a rural character are forced to look farther east.

Last year, as more and more houses began popping up on the outskirts of Elizabeth, the town council began to ponder annexations. The new residents are having an economic impact on Elizabeth, but it's not a positive one: Recently, for instance, the burg had to hire two new policemen to handle incidents mostly involving people who live just outside the town limits. And because the newcomers don't live in Elizabeth proper, the town isn't reaping any property-tax income.

To shepherd the growth, last year the town hired a man with a history. Dean Salisbury had been the mayor of Parker from 1981, when the town was incorporated, until 1988. As that town's chief officer, Salisbury was instrumental in changing Parker from a quiet ranching community into an affluent commuter spread. (He's not the only Parker connection: Elizabeth Town Attorney Cheryl Torpey had the same job title in Parker.)

Since last December, when he was hired permanently as Elizabeth's town administrator, Salisbury has moved quickly. He has sent queries to neighboring landholders and to developers he knew from his days in Parker. The result: Less than one year later, Elizabeth is in the process of considering whether to annex two ranches totaling just over 700 acres--an amount of land that would nearly triple the size of the town.

More alarming to Elizabethans are the new developments already being sketched out for the land. If both sites are built as the developers' preliminary plans envision, Salisbury says Elizabeth will grow by 3,600 people--an increase of almost 400 percent. "This is all going so fast," complains Connie Lehman, a local artist who has lived in Elizabeth for sixteen years. "It just doesn't make sense."

Salisbury seems to have the support of a majority of the town council. Yet even some town officials have become worried about the speed of the annexations. "We have to be careful not to be seduced by the dark side of the force here," says Bill Payne, chairman of the town's planning commission. "Dean is doing what he was asked to do, and with a vengeance."

Frustrated by what he saw as a lack of openness by the council, Payne recently recommended against annexing a twenty-acre parcel of land. Two weeks ago the town went ahead with the annexation over his objections.

"The town board," Payne says, "is not taking me seriously." That has become a concern in his own home, as well: Payne's wife, Tammy, is one of Elizabeth's town councilwomen. Concedes Bill, "We've had some interesting dinnertime repartee."

The annexation question has divided the town in other, unexpected ways. A recent survey of local business owners showed that the vast majority of them opposed the growth, even though it would mean more business. "I'm not against annexation," says Dennis Gesin, whose market is a longtime gathering place for town residents. "But I am against the rapid growth the annexation is becoming. To come in and propose 1,200 homes for a town with only 400 is too much."

Much of the concern centers around how the town will pay for its growth. So far, development plans call only for residential buildings. But property taxes won't even begin to cover the cost of extending sewer and water service, road maintenance and police protection to the new neighborhoods.

"We've got to be able to afford this kind of growth," says Bill Payne. "Residential growth does not carry the freight. Residential development is a net growth loss."

Salisbury insists that the town will require developers to pay their fair share of the new projects' costs to Elizabeth. He also predicts that commercial growth--and the sales tax it brings--will naturally follow a residential boom. "But without the rooftops, we don't have the commercial growth," he says.

By swiftly rounding up developers and ranchers willing to have their land annexed into Elizabeth, Salisbury says he is simply following the bidding of town officials. Yet many residents say they have been left out of the decision-making.

"Salisbury was brought in to do development, and there's a lot of people in this town who just damn don't trust him," says Richard Ragels, a local manufacturer of custom-made hardwood doors. "We've seen this thing get ramrodded through down at the town hall. People can come and talk as much as they want, but nothing is going to change."

That's what gave Ragels and his wife, Robin, the idea of putting a proposal on the ballot to limit growth. A month ago the couple informed the town clerk of their intentions. The measure would restrict building permits and the required water and sewer taps to 5 percent increases yearly.

While the Ragelses gather the signatures required to get the petition on the ballot, the town is fighting back. Last month it hired the large Denver law firm of McKenna and Cuneo (which has offices in Washington, Los Angeles, Dallas and Belgium, among other places) to review the Ragelses' petition. On September 14, one of the firm's lawyers wrote back to the Ragelses, saying that, in his opinion, at least part of their petition was not permitted under state law.

The Ragelses say they intend to persist. "We do have a little war chest put together from citizen donations," says Richard. "If we need to reach litigation, we'll be able to hire a lawyer and pay for it."

In the meantime, the proposed annexations continue to split the town. "There is a level of frustration that is running quite high here," says Payne. "What you're seeing is an attempt on the part of people in Elizabeth to get control of their lives.

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