Scenes from a Sprawl

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

To Meyer, though, the McWhinney approach to growth seems alien and unnatural, just like the flagpole annexation that made it possible.

"There is no real demand for homes in Berthoud right now," he insists. "Look at the number of houses for sale and the number of new homes sitting unsold. Last year at this time, houses under construction had been sold for months. What these guys are basically doing is creating a need and then fulfilling it. Their plan is to give away land to some large corporation, and that would generate jobs and the need for more housing, and then they would build the houses. They're not being responsive to the market. They're creating it."

Many people in Berthoud seem to regard the proposed development on the highway as an event far removed from their everyday concerns, not in their backyard at all. It's something "out there," like a warehouse fire in Guadalajara or the opening of a new disco in Uzbekistan.

That's one possible explanation, anyway, for the poor turnout at a public meeting on a recent Tuesday night at the town's community center. Troy McWhinney and project manager Steve Schroyer are on hand to explain their company's plans for the Wilson property and the exemption request, but less than forty citizens occupy the rows of chairs stretched before the two men. Subtract the town officials, members of the Wilson family, reporters and the like, and the number of concerned citizens in attendance drops to a handful.

Undaunted, McWhinney and Schroyer launch into their pitch, hauling out color-coded maps of the development area and enlarged photos of what they've accomplished at Centerra. McWhinney uses a laser pen to point out possible commercial, residential, and mixed-use areas. Schroyer reads aloud from a list of proposed benefits of the project ("A community in which to live-work-play").

The presentation is rich in topography but short on details about how many houses, how soon. McWhinney explains that his company is still doing market studies to determine the proper mix but should have solid numbers before the November election.

"This is a rough bubble concept," says Schroyer, who keeps a cell phone strapped to his hip and is prone to a kind of crypto-developerspeak: "We will try to do a little more curvilinear-type stuff here...pretty much an engineering marvel...our main entrance is going to be over here somewhere...the pink could sway either way, but not the's really a lifestyle-generational concept."

"A lot of what you see here will change as we get input from town staff," adds McWhinney.

But John Meyer, sitting near the front of the room, isn't at all clear about what he's seeing. He presses McWhinney for a firm number on the overall level of housing density for the project. McWhinney talks about 40 percent open space, but that includes all the space around commercial properties as well as greenbelts. Meyer asks about more gradual approaches to development.

"You and I have talked about this, and I don't want to turn this into a debate," McWhinney says. "If we're going to build thirty homes a year, we're going to do it the cheapest way we can. We don't want to do that. That's why we're asking the voters to exempt the land."

Other members of the audience ask about sewer issues and wildlife. Schroyer talks about various ways the developer could actually improve wildlife access to the river that runs through the property, "but you can't do all that with the growth cap," he adds. Although McWhinney keeps looking for hands raised in the back of the room, he eventually has to come back to Meyer.

"I don't see a long line of people saying, 'Gee, I'd like to live in the Wilsons' cornfield,'" Meyer says. "You guys are creating a need and then filling it."

"You're saying, 'Wait until someone wants a house and then go out and build one,'" McWhinney replies. "It doesn't work that way."

"John, you know the market," Schroyer adds. "It's not those 1,600 acres. It's the tri-county area."

JoLinda Wilson, a real estate broker and one of the owners of the 1,600 acres in question, begs to disagree with Meyer. People who think it's terrible for farms to become subdivisions should really try farming, she suggests, "working day and night and losing $50,000 or $100,000 a year."

She adds, "People want to live away from the city. I've got a list of 200 people who want to live on this property. Look at Superior. They're not having any trouble selling anything there."

The mention of Superior has the growth-cap supporters in the crowd shaking their heads. "What you're doing is bringing the city to the country," says Karen Stockley. "You're bringing city-level densities out here."

A contentious late arrival starts hurling questions at McWhinney like firecrackers. Why can't his company put in the commercial part before the houses, like some other highway developments? Will local contractors get any of the business? Why do they have to overturn the growth cap in order to get it done? What's wrong with stretching it out over a longer period of time? "Why," he asks, "don't you play within the game of this town?"

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