Home Sweet Clone

Twenty-year-old Highlands Ranch has grown into a mega-planned community of mythic proportions.

First comes the Wells Fargo Wagon.

Then bulldozers and John Deere tractors.

Then the Centennial sanitation trucks.

And then a gaggle of industrial lawn mowers, doing spins. A semi-truck from Albertson's. The Douglas County Republican wagon. And row upon row of marching elementary students.

Creeping up the street on a rainy September morning, the Highlands Ranch 20th Anniversary community parade is a march of city services, HR officials, corporate sponsors and schoolkids. In the gray morning drizzle, it looks less like a celebration and more like the grim first wave of a Highlands Ranch colonization effort. Near the end of the parade route is an open field. You can imagine marchers coming to a halt on the grass, bulldozers digging in, banks arranging home loans, retail representatives organizing a strip mall, and community officials picking out mandatory color schemes.

One passing parade car is marked "First Highlands Ranch Baby -- Jennifer Dani." She looks to be in her late teens now.

"I know!" Dani yells to clapping onlookers. "I'm not alone anymore!"

Which is so very true. Since 1981, the suburban community has swelled to more than 70,000 residents and continues to grow by an average of 1,000 homes per year. By some standards, it is the largest planned community in the country, a pinnacle of suburban development.

Yet locally, Highlands Ranch has remained singularly divisive. There are few middle-ground opinions about it. It's residential community as cultural litmus test. You look at Highlands Ranch and find a sea of rooftops or a well-kept community; an ultra-conservative bastion or a haven for family values; a place for them or a place for us. It's a culture that's hermetically sealed, a community with more than twenty houses of worship but not a single retail bookstore. And its residents, by and large, love it.

The sniping from Denver residents began in 1979, when California-based Mission Viejo Company bought 22,000 acres of prairie ranchland for residential development. Critics said the community would be a haven for West Coast transplants, a white-flight magnet and a sprawling eyesore.

As Highlands Ranch evolved from a Mission Viejo master plan to a mega-community, such complaints have only grown more emphatic. After all, Highlands Ranch is very popular with new Colorado residents, a comfortable community that looks and feels just like McHome for transplanted suburbanites. And, yes, the Ranch is also very homogenous. According to the 2000 Census figures, 91 percent of Highlands Ranch residents are white, and more than 70 percent of households are made up of married couples with children.

And is it a sprawling eyesore? Well, that's open to interpretation. But Denver City Councilwomen Susan Barnes-Gelt, a 25-year resident of Capitol Hill and advocate of mixed-use development, calls Highlands Ranch "one big smush of beige puke" that is "the antithesis of what a real community is about."

Joe Blake, former vice president of Shea Homes and current president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, counters that critics are short on firsthand knowledge.

"The [criticizing of Highlands Ranch] is not done from within Douglas County; it's done from other areas," says Blake. "The families that live there are the community's greatest advocates. That's how I gauge the reality of those observations, and I think that's the standard by which any community should be judged."

In other words, you can't understand Highlands Ranch unless you're part of the parade. The following five individuals help explore some of the urbanite myths about the place.

Cop

Diane Santangelo is a covenant cop. She cruises Highlands Ranch five days a week in a gray Honda, inspecting homeowner improvements, citing aesthetic violations. Her job is to sweat the smallest stuff. She can spot weeds creeping between rocks from twenty feet away, can spy an inappropriate paint job without consulting the Color-Dex in her truck.

Santangelo's official title is assistant architectural coordinator, one of a team of six full-time employees in the Highlands Ranch architectural enforcement office. Today she is on patrol, looking for violations and checking the progress of past offenders.

This particular tour is on September 12. The day before, the covenant cops did not get much done, Santangelo admits, but they still went out on patrol.

"It was really hard going out [yesterday]," she says. "People looked at us like, 'How can you come out here and cite this nonsense with all this going on?'"

Covenant cops can, and did, because their job is considered vitally important to the Highlands Ranch Community Association (HRCA). The HRCA is the largest of the 231,000 community associations in the United States, making Highlands Ranch one of the most populous planned communities in the country, making covenant cops the thin beige line that keeps this master of master-planned communities from descending into aesthetic scruffiness. Covenant cops rule their beat, armed with dozens of guidelines specifying exactly what Highlands Ranch is supposed to look like. They are often ridiculed, but residents have all purchased houses based on the success of covenant-cop vigilance.

"Property maintenance is what we're really keeping an eye out for," Santangelo says. "We want to make sure that everything is kept up so property values are kept up. So we're out here to assist the homeowner. They actually appreciate it -- 90 percent of the time."

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