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Home Sweet Clone

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

And when they don't appreciate it?

"We work with them," she says, though the governance is clear: Homeowners agree to abide by the covenants when they purchase their homes. Non-compliance can result in a $25-per-day fee or legal action.

As Santangelo drives along pedestrian-free streets, houses roll past. Highlands Ranch is divided into four quadrants: Northridge, Southridge, Eastridge and Westridge. Despite its use of "curvilinear development" (curving roads and boundary features), there is still a very geometric feel to the community. Strip-mall shopping is here. Houses are over there. Schools are interspersed throughout as needed.

The mow the merrier: Workers with industrial lawn mowers take part in the Highlands Ranch 20th Anniversary parade.
The mow the merrier: Workers with industrial lawn mowers take part in the Highlands Ranch 20th Anniversary parade.
Diane Santangelo is a Highlands Ranch covenant cop.
Anthony Camera
Diane Santangelo is a Highlands Ranch covenant cop.

Bob Kelly, a Coldwell Banker real estate agent who has sold homes in Highlands Ranch for twenty years, says the emphasis on order over chaos is a selling point.

"There's a designated place for churches, for housing, for open space, for recreation centers," Kelly says. "It's not like [Denver], where you see houses next to industrial next to apartments and there's no rhyme or reason to anything."

New-urbanism proponents such as Barnes-Gelt counter that zoning compartmentalization is the greatest drawback of planned communities. Instead, she advocates diverse development that encourages community interaction and pedestrian traffic.

"Real communities have streets that are a public realm where dialogue and democracy and human life take place," she says. "That does not exist in Highlands Ranch. [The zoning] contributes to sprawl, it contributes to pollution...it's the reason that everybody needs a car for everything. The closer you are to where you play, work and shop, the more lively a community is."

In Highlands Ranch, not only are the streets largely vacant, but the street names themselves provide an example of the community's homogeneity. The names were selected by developers yet seem constructed by a computer that spliced two wildlife words together for a soothing compound title: Woodland Drive, Quail Ridge Road. In addition, some neighborhoods spurn variation altogether and recycle a single street name ad infinitum. For example, there's a Spring Hill Parkway, Spring Hill Drive, Spring Hill Street, Spring Hill Court, Spring Hill Way, Spring Hill Place, Spring Hill Lane and Spring Hill Peak -- all within a few blocks of each other.

Complaints from confused residents and fire officials have since prompted Shea Homes to limit the number of times a street name can be used. Still, the effect is rather mind-boggling. The neighborhoods are like those Hanna-Barbera cartoons in which animators cut corners by having Fred Flintstone run past the same rock, tree and house over and over again.

Santangelo doesn't see homogeneity, though. She sees "a very mixed, diverse group."

"This is a melting pot," the covenant cop says. "You have every diversity. You have everything from $100,000 homes to the $1 million homes."

She pauses at a house with a partial paint job. The tentative color is a deep sea blue. She says she spotted it earlier and told the painter to stop working, explaining that it wasn't an approved color.

"A lot of people get mad at us and say we want all earth tones, but that's not true," she says. "We allow a lot of the golds and yellows and blues. It's just we want it in a blending way. You don't want to see a house that's going to be a fluorescent lime green in the middle of a block -- that's not going to help anybody's property value."

Santangelo then spies a ladder leaning unattended against a house. She taps her brakes.

"This ladder would need to be stored," she says, "but I know they just painted, so I'm not going to say anything, because that ladder will probably disappear within days."

Moving on. Up Cresthill Lane, down Weeping Willow Circle.

Considering the conservative demographics of Highlands Ranch, it's surprising how many traditional emblems of Americana are either banned or require approval by the architectural committee. Porch swings, for instance, are nowhere to be found. Ditto for flagpoles and permanent clotheslines. Only a few neighborhoods permit white picket fences. ("We don't want to have one fence lattice, one fence white, one fence picket," Santangelo explains. "You get all those going on, and you get a little circus-y.") Satellite dishes, though, are grudgingly permitted. The 1996 Telecommunications Act overruled homeowner associations on restricting the placement of satellite dishes.

"Homeowners hate them," she claims, "but we can't do anything about it. FCC rules apply."

Turning onto one of the Ranch's broad, six-lane boulevards, Santangelo proudly points to a narrow field sandwiched between the street and a row of backyard fences. This is an example of what Highlands Ranch calls "open space."

Highlands Ranch advocates stress that 61 percent of their community is preserved for open space. The official HR anniversary magazine even reminds readers that community founders "decided to do something quite unique" by leaving "61 percent of the property as open space."

Looking around Highlands Ranch, 61 percent seems like an unbelievably high figure. And it is. According to a spokesman for Shea Homes, the claim actually refers to a zoning category that includes streets, schools, community facilities and churches.

Yes, in Highlands Ranch, a church is considered open space.

And critics say Highlands Ranch's inclination to stuff houses into one neighborhood, then have a meadow next door, makes little sense.

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