Scenes from a Sprawl

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

Not long ago, Berthoud was considered too isolated for the kind of explosive housing boom occurring elsewhere in exurbia. Unlike, say, Superior or Broomfield, it was too far off the beaten path to be attractive to big-city commuters. But then the commuter burgs began to spawn their own commuters. Flanked by Loveland and Longmont, a tolerable distance from Boulder, Fort Collins and Denver's northern suburbs, Berthoud became a logical alternative for folks looking for something smaller, something friendlier and less hectic -- something à la Rockwell.

Yet commuter migration plays only a small part in the exponential growth that Berthoud is now facing. A more critical factor has been the rabid competition among surrounding communities to annex and develop prime parcels along the interstate, leapfrogging over one another to woo commercial properties and sales taxes. Faced with the prospect of losing its I-25 gateway, Berthoud engaged in a flagpole annexation of its own, extending the town boundary to I-25 to claim a 4,200-acre development site.

The move touched off a kind of develop-or-die endgame scenario. Already struggling to cope with the strained services resulting from rapid growth, the town board hiked fees and tried to put its collective foot down. Last fall voters approved the growth cap even as the annexation of the highway property was moving through the pipeline. Alarmed that the cap might thwart full-scale development, owners of one of the parcels involved promptly filed suit, trying to annul the annexation. Meanwhile, the developer of that parcel set about quietly petitioning for an exemption to the cap -- which, if successful, could lead to the area being developed much more quickly than the town board anticipated.

Go slow, now: Growth-cap booster Brian Anderson found the pace of Berthoud development "overwhelming."
John Johnston
Go slow, now: Growth-cap booster Brian Anderson found the pace of Berthoud development "overwhelming."
New development in Berthoud.
John Johnston
New development in Berthoud.

The drama presently playing out in Berthoud is an object lesson in the heavy-handed politicking over the growth that's occurring up and down the Front Range. To some observers, it's an example of what happens when local slow-growth sentiment collides with the rights of private property owners; to others, it's a crucial test of whether a town has the right to control its own destiny in the absence of an effective regional or statewide plan for dealing with runaway development.

"What's going on in Berthoud is a microcosm of the wrassling over growth we're doing across Colorado," says Steve Wilson, spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver. "Growth caps are bad public policy. If we're going to continue to promote job growth in this state, then we need a housing policy and a growth-management policy that makes sense."

"Governor Owens said he wanted local growth control," says John Meyer. "Here's a perfect example of a community making an attempt to control its own growth, and an out-of-town developer says, 'No, we don't accept your laws. We'll overturn them.' Berthoud is the poster child for the fact that local growth control doesn't stand a chance against multimillion-dollar developers."

When software consultant Brian Anderson moved to Berthoud from Boulder six years ago, his real estate agent told him that the town had a growth cap of under 3 percent a year. It was just what Anderson wanted to hear, he says.

"The real estate company recognized the commercial value of a community that wasn't going to turn into Broomfield," he says. "They knew there were a lot of people in Colorado trying to escape that urban sprawl."

When John Meyer moved to Berthoud two years ago, his real estate agent told him about the town's supposed growth cap, too. "It was a good sales pitch, but it wasn't true," he says.

Actually, the town had no growth cap -- as Anderson and Meyer soon discovered. The pair became part of a small but vocal group campaigning for tougher growth control. As newcomers, they were subject to the usual cracks about wanting to "slam the door" after them, but both men say they're not opposed to responsible growth.

"You get criticized for participating in government in this town by people who are from here," says Meyer. "But when you bring new people in, you bring in new ideas."

Members of the town board say that after a shaky start, they've done a good job of responding to the growth surge of the past few years. Building permits and associated water and impact fees, once sold on the cheap, now run around $30,000 per home. That includes an innovative "density transfer fee" of around $3,000 per house in areas that have been upgraded from rural to urban-level zoning -- a less cumbersome way of extracting compensation for higher (and more profitable) densities than the transfer of development rights exercised in other rural communities.

"In the early '90s, they were definitely playing catch-up on impact fees," notes mayor pro tem Jeff Hindman. "But we're now focusing on quality development, and I think we've done a good job of managing the growth."

A carpenter and former environmental activist, Hindman became involved in town politics a few years ago after a row of townhouses was built across the street from the renovated church in which he lives. The project didn't meet parking, height or setback requirements; the developer pulled fewer permits than he should have and managed to escape paying for needed road improvements. Those days are over, Hindman says.

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