Scenes from a Sprawl

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

"For a long time, there was no reason for us to annex," says Berthoud mayor Milan Karspeck. "We saw this as being many years off. Evidently Johnstown didn't see it that way. They flagpoled down from their exit to ours. If we didn't act quickly, we wouldn't have the option of having an interstate access."

Since, by state law, flagpole annexations can only stretch three miles a year, it took Berthoud two years to extend its boundaries along the narrow ribbon of Colorado 56 to the interstate. The annexation was billed as a "strategic" maneuver, an act of self-defense, but it put growth-conscious Berthoud in the ironic position of sanctioning a perfect scenario for sprawl -- a huge development five miles from town that places pressure for further development of everything in between.

Hindman calls the annexation "the worst of all possible growth policies" but stresses its necessity. Karspeck sees the move as a way of obtaining cash that could preserve a buffer of farmland between Berthoud and its new satellite.

"The last thing we want to do is sprawl," he says. "If we have appropriate development, I see that as an engine for generating revenue for open space."

But what kind of development might be appropriate has the town at odds with itself, landowners and developers. Berthoud was deluged with development plans and annexation applications last fall, as developers raced to beat the prospect that Amendment 24 might pass. Instead, the town approved the growth cap, which puts a severe cramp in any master planner's ability to put thousands of homes by the highway. Members of the Wilson family, owners of a key 1,600-acre piece of the annexation, are now seeking to undo the annexation in court, while the prospective developer of Wilson Ranch, McWhinney Enterprises, tries to persuade voters to grant an exemption to the cap.

"To get utilities out there, they need to build quite a number of homes in a short time period to make it financially feasible," notes former Berthoud planner Mike Pelletier, now the planner for Glenwood Springs. "If Berthoud doesn't allow the exemption, they're going to have to sue to get out of the annexation -- and then they'll go to Johnstown."

Anderson says an exemption to the cap would be almost as bad as gutting it altogether, as Gassner proposes. One exemption would only lead to others, he figures, or more lawsuits. "Why wouldn't a developer sue the town if one group gets an exemption and the others don't?" he asks.

In letters to local newspapers, Anderson has vigorously defended the growth cap and questioned what Berthoud hopes to accomplish with its dreams of empire along the interstate. He calls the project "development by litigation."

Troy McWhinney seems poorly cast for the role of the big-bucks, out-of-town developer in Berthoud's growth battle. Twenty-seven years old, sandy-haired, with a Southern California pedigree, he looks like he should be riding some tasty waves off Laguna Beach rather than haggling with bureaucrats over how many thousands of houses he can squeeze into a cornfield.

But the McWhinneys are no slouches. While they were still in junior high school, Troy and his older brother Chad started selling strawberries from a roadside stand in Orange County. Within a few years, they had transformed the berry trade into a juicy business, with 28 stands and seven-figure annual sales figures. Now Chad, 29, is the president and CEO of the Loveland-based developer McWhinney Enterprises, and Troy is vice president in charge of development.

The brothers' emergence as major players in the northern corridor's building boom owes a great deal to their family ties to the region. Their great-great-grandfather, John Hahn, homesteaded land outside of Loveland in the 1860s. After the 1989 death of their grandmother, Virginia McWhinney, the family decided to sell forty acres along the interstate to pay inheritance taxes. That sale led to the factory outlet mall at the U.S. 34 interchange -- and left the McWhinneys in control of hundreds of acres surrounding the new development.

McWhinney Enterprises bought up neighboring farms and soon embarked on a 2,800-acre master-planned development adjacent to the outlet mall called Centerra. Eight years later, the project has sprouted office parks, retail and restaurants, and an apartment complex, with 1,700 single-family homes and townhomes slated to come on line in the next ten years. Overall, the development has approval for up to 5,000 homes and ten million square feet of commercial space, but Troy McWhinney says the buildout will take decades.

"We're in no hurry," he says. "We're going to take the time to do it right."

Centerra has drawn much applause from the business press -- and has earned McWhinney Enterprises a reputation as a developer that actually tries to live up to all the noble language in its mission statement about high quality and environmental sensitivity. For example, the project's design standards are much stricter than what Loveland allows. Plans also call for affordable apartments for low-wage employees at the outlet mall, water-conserving landscaping, even a kitty curfew to protect local birds. It's also the future home of the High Plains Environmental Center, a nonprofit organization funded largely through building-permit fees. The center will engage in wetlands restoration and offer exhibits to educate the public and contractors about "the connection between the built and the natural environment."

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