Scenes from a Sprawl

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

Meyer, though, points to examples around his own subdivision of how the town is still picking up the tab for developers' chintziness. Berthoud is paying a third of the cost of a public park when the developers could have been required to fund all of it; three years in the making, the project is still a patchwork of grass, weeds and piles of dirt. The town is also paying to correct problems in a retention pond for storm runoff and is in the process of building a $10 million sewer-treatment plant to replace a facility that's over capacity and out of compliance with state regulations.

"I don't think taxpayers should subsidize private business," Meyer says. "All of these needs could have been forecast, and the developers should have been required to pay for the additional services. When we made them bring their own water with them, did they run out of town screaming? No way."

Anderson decided to spearhead the petition drive for a growth cap after attending board meetings and seeing the growing slate of development applications. "It was overwhelming," he recalls. "Some of the projects were fairly small, but one of them was going to be 700 homes. I started getting concerned about sewer capacity and schools."

Annex best thing: Steve Schroyer (left) and Troy McWhinney want to master-plan Berthoud's annexation by the highway.
John Johnston
Annex best thing: Steve Schroyer (left) and Troy McWhinney want to master-plan Berthoud's annexation by the highway.

A 5 percent limit per year on new housing permits seemed reasonable to Anderson; in most years, Berthoud's annual growth rate has been less than 5 percent, and as the town grows, the total number of permits available would increase, too. He collected 243 signatures in a day and a half, more than enough to put the matter to a vote.

But building permits are a major revenue source for Berthoud, which has only a modest commercial base, and real estate and retail interests mounted a strong challenge to the measure. In the heated campaign that followed, the pro-growth faction painted a dire picture of how Berthoud would fare under a growth cap: a stagnant town with dwindling revenues, unable to afford a recreation center or pay the interest on the bonds for the new sewer plant, hemmed in by the megaburbs of Longmont, Loveland and Johnstown.

Critics of growth caps like to evoke the example of Boulder, where strict growth controls helped drive up housing costs and send homebuyers into the ghastly, high-density nowhere of Superior's Rock Creek development ("The Sprawlful Truth," January 14, 1999). "With a growth cap, you have fewer neighbors, and the neighbors you have are richer," says Steve Wilson, the homebuilders' spokesman. "Those are the two benefits. In a regional sense, there's no benefit. It's a sprawl generator that puts more people on the highway for longer distances."

But Anderson and Meyer argue that Boulder is a special case of demand outstripping supply by a wide margin; other towns, including Golden and Westminster, have stricter growth caps, with no appreciable hike in housing prices. Noting that the Berthoud area has a wide array of housing stock, from manufactured housing to modest patio homes to rural subdivisions trumpeting country manses "from the mid-$600,000s," Anderson asks, "Where's the lack of housing?"

Hindman, who's no fan of growth caps -- "They create a lot more problems than they solve," he sighs -- says it's too early to tell what impact the cap will have on Berthoud. But that hasn't stopped its critics from blaming the cap for recent economic woes, including a precipitous drop in housing permits this year and hikes in sewer rates to help finance the new plant.

"The growth cap has meant no growth," declares mortgage broker Gassner, who's leading the crusade to overturn it. "Without the growth, we don't have any revenues for a recreation center, for sewer, for many other services."

Gassner says his petition has the support of "a majority of business leaders" in town. Unless the cap is repealed, he warns, developers and their lenders will shun Berthoud in favor of more accommodating communities.

Meyer counters that Gassner's claims are overblown and unsubstantiated. The temporary drop in housing permits -- only twelve were issued in the first five months of this year -- is the result of one developer's death and the lag time involved in the local approval process of various projects, he says. The sewer rate hike was inevitable because the board was overly optimistic in its projections about permit revenues available to finance the new plant. As for the notion that bankers or developers are now shunning Berthoud, "I challenge those people who say that to give me one example," Meyer says. "There's not been one developer who's pulled their plans for development here."

But the cap did throw a wrench into one proposed development that the town is counting on to bring in millions in density transfer fees and sales-tax revenues -- the 4,200-acre project on the highway. For years, local planners regarded the property as a long-term prospect for development; in studies of the northern I-25 corridor, the area was identified as a future "gateway" to Berthoud. But the long view started to shrink as other towns near the interstate began to engage in flagpole annexations to snap up prime highway locations. The actions of Johnstown, in particular, which grabbed a property southwest of the Berthoud interchange, shook Berthoud's leaders out of their complacency.

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