Where the Sidewalk Ends

Even if one community turns them down, developers always know they can get what they want from another.

But that doesn't mean the town is anti- development, says Pam Boyd. "We approved 1,100 units, more than doubling the town of Eagle, and yet we're still called anti-growth. We know we have to grow, but why do you have to allow unmitigated greed?"

Sitting on Barbara and Carley Watkins's back porch, you can watch Colorado disappear, acre by acre and mile by mile. Their home is on a hill in Douglas County, northeast of Parker. For 22 years they have lived here, raising their children and riding their two quarterhorses on the extensive network of paths that wind through the sand-colored hills and bluffs of this part of the county. Many of the Watkinses' neighbors have horse barns and share their love of horses and enjoyment of the deer, coyotes, rabbits and occasional antelope that live here.

Homes on the range: The Brush Creek Valley south of Eagle is a natural for expensive new housing.
John Johnston
Homes on the range: The Brush Creek Valley south of Eagle is a natural for expensive new housing.

Looking west, the Watkinses have a sweeping view of the Front Range, from Pikes Peak to Longs Peak. The skyscrapers of downtown Denver sparkle in the distance, and the roar of the city seems far away.

But maybe not for long.

At the bottom of a valley north of the Watkinses' house, E-470 weaves through the countryside, bringing a torrent of traffic and spurring a real estate boom that's made bulldozers as common as field mice. Aurora has already approved miles of new subdivisions along the turnpike, and now the fast-growing city is knocking at the Watkinses' back door.

The city is trying to annex 1,010 acres just down the street from their home. The land sits on the Arapahoe-Douglas county line and is surrounded on three sides by Douglas County, which zoned the area for rural use. But Aurora has already said it will allow the developer, Gartrell Investment Company, to build 1,500 homes, a 180-acre golf course with clubhouse, and a 35-acre lake. The proposed development would be known as "Rocking Horse." Gartrell's lawyer, Tom Ragonetti, declined comment for this story.

"It will absolutely destroy this area. We'll lose the main reason we moved out here to begin with," says Carley Watkins, who blames the construction of E-470 for the growth. "The politicians and developers wanted that beltway, and they were going to get it one way or another. Aurora has very grandiose plans for this beltway."

The annexation effort has prompted a highly unusual legal confrontation between the city and Douglas County. In January, the Douglas County commissioners filed suit against Aurora, alleging that the proposed annexation violated a state law (commonly known as the "1041" regulations) that allows counties to oversee the creation of new communities.

Last week, Douglas County District Court Judge Robert Behrman ruled in favor of Aurora, saying that Colorado law gives cities the power to annex adjacent areas, even if the county objects. Douglas County is expected to appeal the decision, and both sides say the case will eventually have to be settled by the Colorado Supreme Court.

In the suit, the county claimed that the developer "intends to evade the county's land-use regulations by obtaining annexation to the city of Aurora." It alleged that Aurora is attempting to create an "urbanized growth center" in violation of the county's master plan. "The defendants will be developing a property with a high-intensity land use wholly inconsistent with the master plan of Douglas County, in violation of the 1041 regulations, and the development will not be compatible with the existing land use in the surrounding area," the lawsuit reads.

Douglas County officials declined comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation, but Aurora City Attorney Charles Richardson says that Colorado law usually gives the upper hand to municipalities that are annexing with the permission of property owners. "This is a pretty straightforward legal issue, whether the municipal annexation law trumps the 1041 law," he says. "It's a basic clash between the two forms of government."

Aurora officials make no apologies for the annexation effort. They say Aurora doesn't intend to do more annexations into Douglas County, but this was a special case. "We received a proposal for this property that was immediately adjacent to our property, and it was something we thought would fit into our plan," says Diane Truwe, director of development services for Aurora. "We thought it made a lot of sense in terms of the growth of the metro area. It's not leapfrog development. We had full city services immediately adjacent."

Truwe says Aurora is far more responsible in dealing with growth than Douglas County, which is largely dependent on groundwater that will eventually be depleted. Aurora has sustainable city water supplies. "If this was developed in Douglas County, it would all be non-renewable resources depleting the aquifer," she says. "We don't believe that water wells and septic tanks are the way to provide for urban growth."

And according to Truwe, the proposed development would be a high-quality community that would give Aurora a PGA-quality golf course. "It was not our intent to annex into Douglas County. We did it once before and it created such a furor, we decided not to do it again. But this particular proposal made a lot of sense to us."

For the people who would actually live next to the project, it makes no sense at all.

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