Scenes from a Sprawl

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

"I don't know if you'll ever find a developer of this size who takes as much pride in their work as we do," McWhinney declares. "The majority of people who are against growth are against it because of the poor projects that get built. But most people like the quality of what we do. I have no problem getting into a debate with those who oppose us, because I think what we do is right."

But quality of the McWhinney variety comes with a price. It means acquiring huge acreages in order to master-plan entire communities rather than piecemeal subdivisions. It can also mean higher densities in order to finance the kind of amenities buyers and tenants expect. ("The more apartments you do in a complex, the bigger you can make the pool," McWhinney notes.) Towns hungry for sales-tax dollars, like Berthoud, want to see their highway-abutting property sprout with retail development, but developers argue that they need to build houses -- lots of houses -- to pay for infrastructure and lure the big-box stores.

And therein lies the sticking point in the McWhinneys' plans to repeat the success of Centerra seven miles down the highway. Their proposed mixed-use development at Berthoud's gateway would be impossible without an exemption from the growth cap -- and even with one, it may not yield the mix of housing and commercial development the town board is hoping for.

A detailed study by the Urban Land Institute completed early last year recommended that the town of Berthoud enlist a master planner to direct development of the highway annexation as soon as possible. McWhinney Enterprises was one of several developers invited to submit a proposal, and the company's eagerness to take on the job eventually led to a contract to purchase the Wilson family's 1,600-acre property. (The rest of the 4,200-acre site belongs to more than two dozen other landowners, many of whom have not yet declared their intentions.) But the deal depends on getting the entire 4,200 acres out from under the growth cap before the McWhinneys' option on the Wilson parcel expires next year.

The company wasted no time circulating petitions seeking an exemption from the cap, but its tactics struck some Berthoud residents as underhanded. One company-sponsored presentation for senior citizens included a handout listing eight "possible effects of the growth cap." After reciting the familiar scapegoating about sewer fees and the decline in housing permits, the handout went on to suggest that senior funding was threatened, that county development had been accelerated, and even that eight town employees had resigned over the issue. Town officials say that not only do none of the stated "effects" have anything to do with the growth cap, but some, such as the claim of increased building on county land, are simply not true.

"I was disappointed in some of the things they said," says town board member Jenny Foote, who attended the meeting. "It was a scare tactic."

McWhinney defends the handout and says the information in it was obtained from town employees. But he also says his company has decided to avoid negative campaigning in the future: "We need to focus on the positive, on why this development and exemption would be good for the town."

In an effort to head off a divisive election, Jeff Hindman arranged for McWhinney to sit down with Foote and three residents known to be outspoken growth-cap boosters: Brian Anderson, John Meyer and Karen Stockley. The gathering, which skirted the open-meeting law because only two elected officials were present, was closed to the press. Hindman says he was merely trying to see if the two sides could find some common ground, but Meyer claims the mayor pro tem was trying to broker a deal.

"He wanted our group to cut a deal with the McWhinneys -- that if they would give a certain amount of open space, we would endorse the exemption," Meyer says. "I absolutely refused. Consequently, they never made any offers, and neither did we. Nothing was said that wasn't already said at public meetings."

On August 21 the town board will decide whether to place the exemption request on the November ballot. By law, the board could approve the exemption without submitting it to voter approval, but boardmembers say there's little chance of that happening. "There are boardmembers on both sides of the issue," says Mayor Karspeck. "This is so important to the town of Berthoud that I can't think of anything more deserving of a popular vote."

Of course, the McWhinney exemption could be a moot point if Gassner succeeds in getting the cap repealed. McWhinney believes he'll get his exemption, one way or another, because the majority opinion in Berthoud favors the kind of quality his company can offer. The alternative, he says, is a less stable, less thoroughly planned approach to the crucial gateway that would inevitably lead to shoddier development -- or the risk of losing the property to another town.

"They know that interchange is going to develop," he says. "They want to keep the character of Berthoud, and they prefer to see the interchange master-planned in a quality way."

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