Where the Sidewalk Ends

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

"We know growth is going to take place, but it should fit with the surroundings," says Pierce Parker, who has lived in the area since the 1970s. "We believe Aurora is development-oriented and wants high-density housing. It's not a government entity we want to be associated with."

Parker and his wife were looking for a place where they could raise horses when they moved to the rural subdivision almost thirty years ago. "It was marketed as relatively large acreages with horse facilities available," he says.

The Parkers still have three quarterhorses, and their two daughters grew up taking care of the horses and frequently riding on the trails. "There are horse shows all over this part of the county," says Parker. "One of the best breeding places for Palominos is just down the road."

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.

What angers Parker most about the potential annexation is that he and his neighbors will have no say over a development across the street from their homes. "The City of Aurora is deciding the fate of hundreds of surrounding homes, and they're going against the county master plan," he says.

After thirty years of doing nothing, some people, like the Parkers and the Watkinses, thought this would be the year Colorado lawmakers might actually do something about sprawl.

A highly unusual coalition of business and environmental groups came together to support legislation that would have required every urban area in the state to establish a boundary beyond which growth would not be allowed. This concept was pioneered in Oregon and has been copied by several other states. The bill would also have mandated that cities allow for the construction of new housing when they let new businesses in. With more than one million new residents expected in the state over the next two decades, the bill's backers hoped that Colorado's elected officials would take their heads out of the sand.

But the legislators opted to keep their eyes wide shut, killing all the major growth-related bills.

"It's the number-one issue in the state as far as the people are concerned, but not with the government," Watkins says. "There's been three or four growth bills introduced in the legislature, and not one has been passed. All this talk about smart growth is just for public consumption. They don't intend to do anything about it."

"The General Assembly should be ashamed of itself -- it's ignored the will of the people," adds state senator Bryan Sullivant, the Breckenridge Republican who sponsored the most talked-about bill, known as the Responsible Growth Act.

Lobbyists for Colorado's city and county governments played the key role in killing Sullivant's bill, but the legislature also refused to pass a tepid bill supported by local governments that would have simply encouraged neighboring cities to cooperate in planning.

Lawmakers' ringing endorsement of the status quo has convinced environmentalists that they have no choice but to go directly to the voters with an initiative campaign. "We really tried in the legislature to get bills passed," says Woody Beardsley of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (COPIRG). "We had some real hope this year."

A coalition that includes COPIRG, the American Planning Association (APA), the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters has already submitted plans for an initiative to the Colorado Legislative Council. The proposed initiative would require cities and counties in Colorado to prepare maps of future growth areas and submit them to local voters for approval. Growth would be limited to areas where water and sewer services would be available within a ten-year period, and cities and counties would also be required to work together in drawing growth maps.

"Without someone forcing the communities to work together, everyone is out for themselves," says Jean Hagen, the chair of the legislative committee for the APA. She says many planners feel that the public blames them for sprawl when it is really elected officials who are making the decisions.

The most unusual aspect of the law, which would be an amendment to the state constitution, is the provision giving local voters the power to approve growth boundaries. Environmentalists are betting that the voters will be less likely to be swayed by big-spending developers than politicians have proven to be.

"We think voters should have a right to say what will happen in their communities," says Jones.

Critics of the initiative fear that giving voters the power to make land-use decisions will lead to narrow-minded "not in my backyard" policies, and they predict housing costs could skyrocket as a result.

"This is being promoted as a simple solution to a complex problem," says Steve Wilson, spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver. The homebuilders were an important part of the coalition that had formed to support Sullivant's bill. In return for going along with the growth boundaries, they won a provision that would have made it easier for them to win approval for new housing projects inside those boundaries. But since the proposed ballot initiative doesn't include such a provision, they plan to campaign against it.

Currently, homebuilders are frustrated by the numerous zoning delays they face in the suburbs, and they say those delays are part of the reason the price of new housing has risen dramatically in metro Denver. Wilson says many suburbs are intentionally trying to drive up housing prices, requiring larger homes and discouraging multi-family housing, all in an effort to make their communities more elite: "It's a national phenomenon, where suburban communities are extremely selective about who gets to live there. We've seen a number of cities that have followed Boulder's lead of restricting housing while encouraging business growth."

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