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Scenes from a Sprawl

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

McWhinney tries to explain the economic realities of master planning, but the ensuing discussion does little to dispel the vagueness of their plans for the property -- or, for that matter, the array of unknowns surrounding the entire 4,200-acre annexation. For the town to have a firmer notion of what's ahead, officials will first have to sit down with the various landowners and come up with a mutually acceptable land-use plan, a process that could take months. Partly because so many issues still have to be resolved, tonight's meeting hasn't brought the McWhinney proposal into focus.

"At this stage, their plan is a master design, not a master plan," town trustee Jenny Foote says after the meeting ends. "I want to make sure that we get what we want so that it's not 4,200 acres of nothing but housing."

"The McWhinneys definitely go out of their way to do a good job," says Mayor Karspeck. "They're a strong partner to work with. But if we end up with a lot of houses out there and little else -- that isn't the reason we went through all this. There has to be a strong commitment to retail. It's a top priority."

Karspeck is troubled by the low turnout at the meeting. A previous presentation had drawn more than 200 people. But then, that meeting had been intended for residents of Northmoor, an upscale, low-density subdivision on a ridge east of the highway and adjacent to the proposed development. Like the folks on JoLinda Wilson's list, the Northmoor people had moved out to the middle of nowhere in search of country living -- only to discover that a small town is about to be built right below their front yards.

McWhinney Enterprises has told the Northmoor residents that they'll do what they can to preserve the current subdivision's views of the mountains. Of course, for the next ten or twenty years, those views will also include earthmovers and road-graders and endless rows of high-quality, highly uniform houses sprouting from the sod like so many weeds.

Along the Front Range these days, that's country living.


Although most of the petitions involved have yet to be officially reviewed and approved, it appears that Berthoud voters will have several possible futures from which to choose this fall. They can exempt the highway land from the growth cap, eliminate the cap entirely, or keep to the slow-growth path championed by Anderson and Meyer, throwing the highway project into confusion.

One decision they won't have to make is whether to approve the Town Services Ordinance, the proposal backed by Meyer and Anderson that would require growth to pay its own way. Last week their group, Citizens for Berthoud, decided to wait until next spring before putting the matter to the voters.

"We got the signatures we needed, but a lot of people were confused as hell," Meyer says. "People thought if they voted for one of the other initiatives, they couldn't vote for this. We'd rather have the issue decided on its own merits."

But whatever Berthoud voters decide in November, their fate is only partly in their hands. Their growth quandary has been shaped by forces far outside their control, including the lack of coherent regional planning and agreements about growth boundaries. The lack of leadership from the Colorado General Assembly, which has dithered and drawn "lines in the sand" over growth issues while failing to pass any meaningful legislation, has also hindered the locals' ability to respond to the situation. "The state laws we have now produce some pretty dysfunctional growth patterns," Jeff Hindman says.

Mayor Karspeck wonders if Berthoud's plight would be quite as bad if the legislature had done something about flagpole annexations years ago. He's hopeful that the lawmakers will finally be forced to act on several pressing issues in next month's special session on growth. Small towns such as Berthoud badly need to be able to make regional agreements with teeth in them, he says, so that rogue communities that jump their growth boundaries risk losing federal transportation funding or other vital revenues. They also need "appropriate" impact fees that address some of the most costly aspects of growth, such as traffic congestion and new school construction.

"There's this big hole in school funding," Karspeck says. "You can charge for land dedication, but when it comes to bricks and mortar, you can't charge a thing. So the existing taxpayers end up underwriting new schools, and that's a sizable tax that should be paid by the people causing the impact."

Still, Karspeck concedes, there are some aspects of Berthoud's dilemma that even a raft of new state laws can't fix. Development of the highway property will lead to the emergence of two Berthouds, separated by five miles of highway and worlds apart in character and sensibility. The two towns will operate in separate counties. Their children will be in separate school districts. In time, the population of the "new" Berthoud could be double that of the existing town, leading to a newcomers' takeover of town government, much as Superior was overwhelmed by Rock Creek.

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