The Middle of Somewhere

The Plains Conservation Center is on the run from sprawl.

The center used to be "beyond civilization," Richardson says. "What you have now is urban growth coming out to meet it. So the Plains Conservation Center is doing the right thing. It's time people realized how special the prairie is and to be proud of it. To be able to give kids the experience of what the plains were really like, they had to go out further. They've got enough land where they're going to be able to keep the prairie ecosystem in good shape."

The center's new site is on 5,700 acres located thirty miles east of its current location. Made up of what used to be ranch land, the property is split by West Bijou Creek running north to south and the Arapahoe-Elbert county line running east to west. Eventually the center would like to buy 3,000 to 5,000 additional acres of adjoining land.

"It was amazing that we could even find a site in the year 2000 that is large enough to be self-sustaining, to create a viable habitat," Arneill says of the Bijou property. "We were able to find ranchers, though, who were sympathetic to the cause. They didn't want to see their land subdivided into 35-acre ranchettes."

Mike Gorman

The center needed more than $3 million to buy the Bijou site, however, so the purchase won't be completed until it gets its money from the sale of the 490 acres to The Conservatory's developer. And before that land can be sold, Aurora needs to approve the developer's plans. The process has been long and complicated, but the Aurora City Council may make its decision as early as July, says Rick Solomon, a planner for the city.

"It's a very large piece of ground," Solomon says. "It's one thing to look at a subdivision of twenty or thirty homes, but this one is over 1,400." Because of the neighborhood concerns, only single-family homes -- no condos or apartments -- will be allowed in The Conservatory, and those homes must be well-spaced and hold to specific design standards. The developer, an investment group represented by Chris Elliot, former president of the Colorado Association of Home Builders, is also looking into creating a special taxing district that would pay for quick landscaping.

No matter how careful the developer may be, though, Arneill isn't looking forward to the construction project -- and since many of the center's activities will continue on the property now owned by Aurora, she'll be in a position to watch it all. "As soon as you lay asphalt to get rid of the prairie dust, as soon as you plant green grass so your kids can play soccer, you eliminate native wildlife, plants and trees," she says.

To see this happen to land that once represented a holdout against development will be even harder. "In my head, I understand completely," she adds. "But in my heart, I am just crying. My kids grew up here; I gave fourteen years of my life to this site. I love this land. But the new site is so spectacular, I hope I can get over it."

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