By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
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By Melanie Asmar
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By Michael Roberts
The tiny of town of Erie rests at the end of a long stretch of farmland west of I-25. Signs of expansion in this old coal-mining town are everywhere: Bulldozers grade fields in preparation for new homes; for-sale signs dot vacant pieces of land; and a steady stream of customers floods the new Safeway -- the town's first grocery store. Dirt streets will be a thing of the past when Erie's road-paving project is completed at the end of the year.
Some residents view the growth as a healthy boost to this once-ailing town. Others are sickened by what they see as a rampant suburban cancer enveloping their little utopia. It is this division over Erie's future -- how much it should grow and in what way -- that will be at the heart of the upcoming Board of Trustees election. In April, four of the seven trustees will be up for re-election, and one seat vacated by a trustee who moved out of town will need to be filled. But if an angry group of slow-growth advocates claims a majority of the seats, Erie's future could take a radically different turn.
The war over growth came to a head last fall, when the Board of Trustees considered annexing a portion of unincorporated Weld County northwest of Erie; the 2,700 acres in question would have been developed into a high-end housing subdivision to be occupied by 4,500 people. The developer wanted the Northfield property to become part of Erie so that the homes would get city water and sewer services. But residents were outraged that a single subdivision could almost double Erie's current population of 5,000. More than 400 people signed a petition calling for a public vote on the matter, and in December, a special election was held. The Northfield annexation was soundly defeated.
Even before the annexation issue arose, however, residents were becoming concerned about growth. Last spring, officials held town meetings to hear what people had to say about Erie's three-year-old comprehensive plan, which they were updating. But "it became quickly apparent that the government didn't have an interest in hearing what the public had to say," says Steve Skapyak, a spokesman for Appropriate Growth Regulations Enhancing Erie (AGREE), a group of a hundred people who organized to fight the perceived lack of representation.
"The people at the meetings expressed a desire for the town to slow down growth; about halfway through those meetings, [the trustees] came out with a comprehensive plan that was supposedly based on the input from town citizens, but there was little, if any, changes to the comprehensive plan they rolled out in 1996."
Already, Erie has approved annexations that will bring in 16,000 more people; the comp plan would allow for a population of 38,000 in twenty years. "A lot of us feel the comprehensive plan was tailored around some of the big developments in the pipeline, like Northfield and now Vista Ridge," Skapyak says.
Vista Ridge is a proposed upscale housing and golf-course development located south of Erie. If the 950 acres are annexed, the subdivision could add another 2,500 people to the town's population. The trustees are going to discuss the annexation on February 22; if they approve it, AGREE members predict, the April 4 election will be even more heated.
The group wants to replace all of the incumbents with people who will rein in growth; its biggest fear is that big-box stores and particle-board homes will transform Erie into another Superior, with its sprawling Rock Creek subdivision. Ballot petitions aren't due until March, so no candidates have officially come forward yet, but AGREE says it plans to produce challengers.
Mayor Vic Smith, who is not running for re-election (he has been mayor for eight years and before that was on the Board of Trustees for two years and on the zoning commission for seven), says growth has always been a big issue in Erie elections. But the presence of AGREE, he says, adds a new twist. "I think they pose a real challenge because of their tactics. AGREE seems to feel that they have no compunction to check facts before they state or publish things," Smith says, explaining that one member of the group wrote a newspaper editorial misstating information about Erie's payroll.
Nancy Jo Wurl agrees. Wurl was appointed to the Erie Board of Trustees in May 1998, when one of the trustees resigned before completing his term. She's up for re-election in April and hopes to keep her seat.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Wurl sits on a bench outside the town hall and talks about how she and her colleagues on the board are characterized as being pro-growth by AGREE members like Reed Schrichte. Schrichte publishes a newsletter called the Erie Watchdog, which reports on city hall.
"He distributes the Watchdog door-to-door -- well, to select doors," says Wurl, on whose doorstep the newsletter seldom lands. Members of AGREE, she notes, are "consummate button-pushers." (As she's talking, Schrichte walks by and enters the town hall without saying hello. "There's Mr. Green himself," she says. "Every town has one.")
"I don't know of anyone on the Board of Trustees who's pro-growth," continues Wurl, a Louisville native who has lived in Erie since 1995. "We all realize Erie needs to grow, but we think it should grow in a controlled way. We have to pay our bills, and we owe our citizens a certain quality of life. We haven't even had a doctor in town for years."