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Home Sweet Clone

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

Foxfire says many of her classmates kill time at the recreation centers or hang around the local cineplex. She describes Highlands Ranch as "very structured."

Sometimes on Sundays, her mom takes her to church. Foxfire goes along and fakes it.

Rebel

Every so often, a feud between the HRCA and a resident will make the news. Like the case in 1997 when the HRCA sued a 69-year-old widow for having a faded-beige garage door (neighbors eventually volunteered to paint it). Or last year's failed attempt by a handful of residents to force a homeowner-based review of the covenants. In every such story, you will hear the biggest self-perpetuated myth about Highlands Ranch.

The myth goes like this: Without the covenants, neighbors would grow weeds ten feet high, paint houses lime green and park junked cars on their lawns. The ensuing chaos would result in an ugly neighborhood and decreased property value.

The argument essentially uses extreme examples of homeowner neglect to justify Highlands Ranch's dizzying array of restrictions that control every possible aspect of neighborhood aesthetics, from address-number sizes to xeriscaping. The phrase "protecting property values" is often bandied about, as if other values, such as charm and character, were notorious for crashing housing prices.

The notion that extra-strict covenants somehow ensure higher property-value returns is also a real estate fallacy. There has been very little statistical difference between property appreciation in Highlands Ranch and its chaos-friendly urban antagonist, Denver. According to figures provided by Coldwell Banker, the median housing value in Highlands Ranch increased 62 percent from 1990 to 2001, while the housing value in Denver increased 57 percent during the same period. The figures do give Highlands Ranch a slight lead, but not after one factors in the Ranch's continuous influx of new housing.

Angela Burdick, president of the South Suburban Metro Realtors Association, says newer communities always appreciate faster than older ones because of increased energy efficiency and modern amenities.

The real reason residents like the covenants -- a reason that HR residents are loath to admit and that outsiders fail to consider -- is that most residents like the way the covenants filter their neighborhood into a uniform vision.

"For most people, buying a residential home is an emotional experience; it's not mainly an investment issue," says Burdick. "A lot of the people who live in Highlands Ranch like [the aesthetics], they like having that conformity, they like knowing what to expect. And if they did not like it, they would petition the association to change [the covenants] or move."

So when asked about the covenants, residents will cite practical reasons for them such as "property values," because few people will confess to the tranquil pleasure of an undistinguished neighborhood, the joy of sameness, the ease of knowing that when you drive home from work, your neighborhood will look exactly as you left it. They say you can't go home again, but you can in Highlands Ranch, as nothing is allowed to change.

Homeowner Vikki Stevens, however, is an exception. Stevens and her husband, Daniel Yagow, are transplants from San Francisco and true Highlands Ranch rebels.

"We don't have kids," Stevens says. "We don't drive a pigmobile, we don't have a cell phone, we don't play Bonko, we don't patronize the chain restaurants and the movie theaters out here."

Stevens and Yagow moved to Colorado on April 20, 1999, the day of the Columbine massacre. The couple searched for houses in many neighborhoods but kept returning to Highlands Ranch. The realtor pointed out that the community was close to Yagow's office and that buyers can get plenty of house for their money: extra bathrooms, multi-car garage, a kitchen stuffed with new appliances.

Stevens reluctantly agreed, then set about designing the interior of her new home to be a cultural oasis to match her taste. Her house is loaded with architectural customizations, primary colors and modern art. It looks like a hipster's dream and a covenant cop's nightmare.

Now go outside, and you'll find that the exterior obediently matches every other house on her street...except for the five modern-art statues on her backyard patio.

The metal figures are colorful and playful; three are designed by Denver sculptor Troy Pillow. Their colors blend with her landscaping, but the pieces still catch your attention, as good art is prone to do. Neighborhood kids like to come into her open back yard and play with the figures, sticking their hands in the jaws of the red piranha. Quips Stevens: "The statues are probably the only exposure to modern art these kids are going to get."

Then, four months ago, Stevens received what some residents call "the nasty-gram."

"During a recent neighborhood survey, it was noted you have installed ornament(s) that are not in compliance with the guidelines," begins the letter from an HRCA "architectural technician."

At first Stevens dismissed the notice, thinking it must be some misunderstanding. Later she was told that one of her neighbors called to complain, a notion she finds appalling.

"There are tons of covenant violations all over," she says. "But I would never dream of picking up the phone to call and narc on my neighbors."

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