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The Village People

Arapahoe County's most aggressive town wants to swallow up the area's prime commercial real estate. Can anything stop Greenwood Village?

The weekly meeting of the Arapahoe County Republican Men's Club is the ultimate power breakfast. Over scrambled eggs and ham, influential business and political leaders gossip and scheme in a usually well-behaved manner. The opulent Metropolitan Club setting on Orchard Road reflects the comfort and good fortune of the south suburbs: thickly upholstered chairs, white-linen table settings, crystal goblets filled with freshly squeezed orange juice.

At a recent get-together, the official subject of discussion is the November election. While the club's members are thrilled by Bill Owens's election as governor, they're troubled that he won just 51.5 percent of the vote in Arapahoe County, long a Republican stronghold. One white-haired man stands and informs his colleagues that at his voting precinct, many voters were dressed in suspiciously downscale threads and weren't the "rich and affluent" crowd he usually sees. The audience--entirely white, mostly well over forty, and all male except for three women--mutters in dismay, and one man mumbles something about "goddamned liberals" as he takes a bite from his muffin.

Then Steve Ward, the first-term Arapahoe County commissioner, rises to speak. Tall, thin and definitely young in this room, the former Glendale mayor defines himself as a classic conservative, a believer in small and efficient government. With the earnest manner of an Eagle Scout, he usually spends his time working on dry-as-dust topics like welfare reform.

But today he's a rabble-rouser, here to rally the well-fed masses against an equally well-fed but menacing aristocracy. It's the city of Greenwood Village, which wants to annex a lucrative stretch of commercial property: five square miles extending down Arapahoe Road to the east of Peoria Street and along I-25 all the way to County Line Road. Greenwood Village's plan would absorb much of Arapahoe County's prime retail, while excluding more than 100,000 people who live in the neighborhoods served by those retailers.

"It reminds me of the terrorist organizations in the early 1970s: 'Do as we say or we'll blow up the airplane,'" Ward tells the group. "I think we shouldn't negotiate with terrorists. We should give them the respect they deserve--none."

The Greenwood Village City Council is planning to "institutionalize serfdom" by denying the residents of unincorporated Arapahoe County the right to form their own city, Ward charges. The audience applauds, and one woman rises to denounce Greenwood Village's "conspiracy" to inflict taxation without representation on her compatriots.

If the town has any supporters here, they aren't talking.
Ward is leaving the next day on a research trip to Vietnam, he tells his audience, but he already feels like he's living with an alien presence. "Why should I go overseas to study a foreign regime when I've got one in my backyard?"

In response to Greenwood Village's planned land grab, some residents of unincorporated Arapahoe County have proposed forming their own city: Centennial. The city would occupy forty square miles extending from South Broadway almost as far east as Gun Club Road and be home to about 100,000 people. Advocates say Centennial could function with a 1.5 percent sales tax.

But only if Greenwood Village's proposed annexation is blocked. If that plan goes through, Centennial supporters say, it will absorb almost all of the commercial property needed to support Centennial--and prevent the formation of the new city altogether. As a result, not only would residents of unincorporated Arapahoe County lose the power to determine how their sales taxes are spent, they'd also have to pay higher property taxes to maintain existing levels of police and other services.

Since both Greenwood Village and backers of Centennial claimed to have the legal upper hand, the dispute inevitably wound up in court. Earlier this month, Arapahoe County District Judge John Leopold ruled in favor of Greenwood Village, saying that two procedural errors made by backers of Centennial invalidated their effort to form a new city. Centennial boosters vowed to correct those errors immediately and this week are collecting signatures on new, improved petitions. Meanwhile, Greenwood Village continues to hold annexation pep rallies and plot its legal strategies.

Whether or not Greenwood Village triumphs this time, the city is already well on its way to becoming the dominant player in Arapahoe County. Aurora and Littleton may be larger, but Greenwood Village is poised to control the entire I-25 commercial corridor from Belleview to County Line Road, ruling over a high-powered collection of office parks, corporate headquarters and elite retail outlets that together constitute one of the most lucrative business districts in the country.

Not bad for a city of just 13,000 that was once known as "a poor man's Cherry Hills." Founded in 1950, in large part to prevent neighboring Englewood from building a reservoir in what was then a rural area, Greenwood Village soon became a refuge for people fleeing big, bad Denver and its traffic and pollution. But Greenwood Village's latest incarnation as the beast that tried to swallow Arapahoe County shows how urban problems have followed the people who tried to run away from them.

"It's like watching Patton's Third Army march through Europe," says Ward. "This is not a city, it's another country. You have to deal with them through the state department."

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