Busting a Cap

As the economy sags, Berthoud's tough stance on growth comes under fire -- again.

Ken Weibel, one of the local developers, says that turnover in the city administration -- the town has had three planning directors and three city managers over the past four years -- and rising impact fees have contributed to the uncertain climate for construction. The allocation system has helped, he says, but so has the pre-selling of water taps, which has allowed him to double the number of permits he's obtained for his 69-home project.

"There's no way I could have started with just the 25 permits I had under the cap," Weibel says. "Most bankers don't want to put the money up to buy raw land if you're not sure you have the permits to complete the project."

Revenues from building permits are only a small percentage of the town's budget. Both sides agree that the town needs more retail and commercial development, boosting sales and use-tax revenues, but Hindman's group contends that the town needs more housing to attract major businesses such as Safeway, which has been considering building a store there. Their campaign literature stresses "growth management" rather than a growth cap, arguing that the "negative perceptions" associated with a cap may be more critical than how much building it actually allows.

Don't fence me in: Growth-cap booster Brian 
Anderson.
Anthony Camera
Don't fence me in: Growth-cap booster Brian Anderson.

"The cap gives lenders the feeling that Berthoud is totally anti-growth," says Tom Patterson, a former town board trustee who's working with Hindman on the repeal campaign. "As a consequence, you're not going to get a favorable loan if you want to open a business in Berthoud. If you want to start a subdivision, the fear is you won't be able to amortize your investment. Perception is reality."

Only six permits have been pulled so far this year in Berthoud. While dozens of more homes may come on line, town planner Wayne Reed is reluctant to predict how many of the projects will actually get done soon. The cap has forced builders to compete for a limited number of permits, but the number of homes getting built isn't the only consideration for the planning staff.

"I spend a lot of time crunching numbers that could otherwise have been devoted to quality issues," Reed says. "The growth cap alone has not made staff look at other tools to manage growth."

But supporters of the cap say that it was never intended to be the town's only tool for controlling development and that annihilating it won't magically lift Berthoud out of its current slump. Its removal, though, could invite more large-scale projects that will end up straining town services even further. "If you look five years out, there could be substantial growth," Stockley says. "There are 500- and 700-home developments waiting to come in if the cap goes away."

Hindman counters that larger projects are the best way to ensure quality and affordability of housing: "The larger chunk of land you're planning, the better."

Hindman, Patterson and other former town leaders involved in the repeal effort are urging their neighbors to have more confidence in their elected officials' ability to manage growth. But Berthoud's confidence in its leaders has taken a few hits lately. Last year, months after voters rejected the proposal to exempt the McWhinney project by the highway from the growth cap, Hindman and other town board members granted the project an additional 100 permits a year anyway. It wasn't enough to keep the McWhinneys from de-annexing their property and flirting with Johnstown; now, however, the developers are talking to Berthoud officials about another annexation, an elaborate mating ritual that may yet allow the town to control its I-25 gateway while getting the project out from under the cap at last.

"I see the McWhinneys putting their houses in and maybe putting in commercial development in twenty years," Stockley says. "They're drawing up their own development agreement, writing their own development codes. They want to make their own rules. I think it's crazy that Berthoud would let them do that, but it looks to me like the town board is leaning toward that."

The board has put off a final decision on the McWhinneys' latest annexation proposal until after the May 20 special election. Stockley believes there's a political motive for the delay: If voters know that 4,000 homes are going up along the highway, she reasons, they'll be less likely to vote to repeal the cap. But her greatest concern is whether people will bother to vote at all, after having to revisit the cap issue in one election after another.

"The development interests keep bringing it back over and over again, until they wear you down and you end up saying that growth is inevitable," Stockley says. "We don't have an answer for the voters, except to get angry and get out and vote again."

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