Scenes from a Sprawl

The citizens of Berthoud thought they could control how fast their town grew. The developers had other ideas.

Two weeks ago, John Meyer came across a man with a clipboard outside Toddy's, a grocery store in a busy strip mall on the edge of downtown Berthoud. The man was collecting signatures of registered voters.

Petitions are nothing new in Berthoud; lately, the town seems awash in them. Last year, a group of volunteers walked door-to-door and gathered enough signatures to place a proposal on the ballot for a growth cap that would limit new housing permits to 98 a year, or 5 percent of the existing total. In November the initiative passed by a solid margin, even as nearby towns and the state as a whole rejected a slew of other grassroots growth-control measures.

But this past spring, to the consternation of many Berthoud citizens who voted for the growth cap, a developer funded another petition drive seeking an exemption from the cap for a massive 4,200-acre parcel of land flanking I-25. Despite surging population growth in the last decade, Berthoud remains a modest bedroom community, an enclave of less than 5,000 people surrounded by the rolling farmland of northern Colorado. The developer had no trouble gathering the necessary 157 signatures to place the issue before the town board.

The petition Meyer was handed outside Toddy's was yet another assault on the growth cap. This one proposed to overturn the cap altogether, wipe it off the books. It had been submitted to the town clerk for approval three days earlier by Lou Gassner, a local mortgage broker who is also president of the Berthoud Chamber of Commerce. Now it was already on the street.

An ardent supporter of the growth cap and a former member of the town's planning commission, Meyer didn't sign the petition. Instead, he struck up a conversation with the signature collector and watched him in action, acquiring a grim education in the politics of growth in the process.

The man wasn't a Berthoud resident. He worked for a company based in Colorado Springs that runs petition drives for a fee. He knew little about the pluses and minuses of a growth cap and seemed to have scarce interest in the matter beyond his paycheck. In fact, he told Meyer, last fall he had collected signatures for Amendment 24, the statewide growth-control initiative that went down in flames at the polls. His pitch this time around was simple: "Are you a registered voter in Berthoud? Then I need your signature right here."

Many people signed without reading the entire document. Those who asked questions got vague answers. Some, Meyer believed, actually favored the growth cap but were under the impression that the issue must be put to a vote each year.

The man reminded Meyer, a Navy veteran and retired airline pilot, of mercenaries he had met overseas: efficient, well-paid, allied with whichever side paid better. But his hustling nonchalance provided Meyer with a few ideas about how he should handle his own petition drive, the one for which he'd recently resigned his post as a planning commissioner.

Meyer's proposal, known as the Town Services Ordinance, advances the quaint notion that growth should pay its own way -- that developers should be responsible not only for building and tap fees, but also for any additional strains on sewers, parks, roads and other municipal services caused by their development over a twenty-year period. His critics say the ordinance is either redundant with what's already required or that it adds crushing up-front costs to the already hefty "impact fees" developers routinely shell out, but Meyer doesn't see it that way.

"Developers never do what they should do, only what you make 'em do," he says. "Our current development code says the town may impose certain fees on them, but it doesn't say we have to. And the fact that we haven't imposed them in the past has left the town with quite a bit of debt. Berthoud grew 62 percent, according to the census, in the last ten years. If growth is good, then we should be 62 percent better off, and we're not."

Over the next four hours, Meyer collected more than a hundred signatures for his petition, working side by side with the man pushing unbridled growth.

For a little while, it's still possible to pretend that Berthoud has been spared the invading armies of contractors and realtors now marching through other communities along the Front Range. The five-mile drive into town from the interstate is a leisurely tour of cornfields and hay bales drying in the sun, with honey for sale on the front stoop and Longs Peak looming in the distance. The town's core is a nostalgic collection of small businesses and stately clapboard and brick homes ringed by towering cottonwoods and wide, quiet streets.

"It is the kind of town Normal Rockwell painted, the kind of town writers reminisce about," burbles a Web site promoting the place. "Most people think this kind of homespun atmosphere is lost until they experience Berthoud, Colorado."

Yet a closer inspection reveals that Berthoud, like its neighbors, has spun a great number of homes in a very short time. South of the intersection of Colorado 56 and U.S. 287, a junction soon to be replaced by a major bypass, a nearly completed subdivision leaps out of the proverbial nowhere. Another pile of new houses hunkers behind the strip mall to the west of downtown. Other residential projects -- Peakview Meadows, Serenity Ridge, Heron Lakes, the inevitable Green Acres, and dozens more -- are already under way or on the drawing board, offering a range of floor plans and expansive driveways for the weary commuter to choose from. Thousands of acres in and around the current town are now slated for development, a circumstance that could easily double or triple the city's population over the next decade.

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