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The Next Bad Thing

Creeping traffic. Strained schools. Dwindling water. Commuters are flocking to Elbert County for a little bit of country, but there isn't much country left.

John Dunn stands on the deck of his home, pointing out the virtues of country living. On a 160-acre spread in southern Elbert County, they are many.

The view from Dunn's porch is one of undulating hills and gently sloping grasslands ringed by stands of ponderosa pine. A small pond doubles as a skating rink in winter. The air is clean and crisp, the silence punctuated by the occasional shrill whinny of horses.

"My runway's down there, and my hangar's over there," says Dunn, a retired engineer. "When I told people at Martin Marietta I was moving out here, they thought it was absolute stupidity. Who ever heard of anyone driving an hour to work? But I wanted the rural atmosphere, and I wanted my children to go to school in the country. I flew my own plane to work for nine years, and in good weather, it took me fifteen minutes."

Dunn's friend John Draper, a retired commercial airline pilot, nods appreciatively. Like Dunn, Draper moved to the county in the 1960s and bought 160 acres. He, too, flew his own plane to Stapleton sometimes, but the drive wasn't so bad, either. "In those days," he recalls, "there were no stoplights going into town until you hit Sixth and Havana."

Four decades ago, Elbert County was an isolated place, psychically as well as geographically removed from the cities of the Front Range. The population of the L-shaped county, which spans 1,848 square miles, averaged out to less than two people per square mile. Standard phone service consisted of a four-party line, and virtually every call was long distance. Parker was a wide spot on the road to Denver. There were few paved roads and almost no amenities to speak of. In the winter, Dunn and Draper used their farm tractors to plow roads into Elbert and Elizabeth, with the county's blessing. Later, the pair did a tidy business selling snowmobiles to their neighbors.

Both men were pioneers of a way of life that has become increasingly common in Colorado: the Rural Commuter (motorist extraurbanus). But the breed has mutated in recent years, particularly in Elbert County, where a staggering surge in residents, soaring land prices and strained resources have transformed the notion of "country life" into a freakish contradiction, volatile and grotesque, like a science experiment gone berserk.

Between 1970 and 1990, the population of the county more than doubled, from 3,903 to 9,646 people; in the following decade, it doubled again. At one point, Elbert was the second-fastest-growing county in the nation, right behind burgeoning Douglas County. The blistering pace has slowed since 2001 because of the economic slump, but today there are more than 22,000 residents in the county, with thousands more expected in the next few years. According to the latest census data, Elbert is one of only three counties on the eastern plains that actually gained in population last year.

The new arrivals are mostly commuters. Few have planes or tractors. Chances are good, though, that they have an SUV, a pickup or both, plus a hankering for a new house on ten or five or even two acres, with a three-car garage and a long driveway and room for a horse or a set of swings. And they want it, ideally, in the northwest corner of the county, a teeth-gnashing but tolerable drive from Castle Rock and Parker and the farthest stretches of Aurora.

If they have the bucks, they spring for a McMansion on one of the high, pine-studded ridges that offer stunning vistas of the Front Range -- there are places at the county's western edge where the elevation hits 7,300 feet, stout fortresses of rock and timber above the grasslands -- and declare themselves masters of all they survey. If not, they settle for a more modest estate, a patch of suburbia scratched onto the high plains, and steel themselves for the commute. They want the quiet and the wide-open spaces and the fabled rural atmosphere, and they want it something fierce -- even if that dogged pursuit dooms the land and obliterates the very magic they seek.

Dunn's place is more than twenty miles from the epicenter of the housing boom. The sheer size of his property insulates him somewhat from the commuter invasion; one of his closest neighbors is cable tycoon John Malone, who owns more than 40,000 acres in the county and has been an enthusiastic exponent of preserving its natural beauty. Yet even the landed gentry are feeling the aftershocks of the boom, from tax bills to traffic to choked schools. Prime land that sold for $180 an acre in the 1960s now commands $6,000 to $8,000 an acre. On paper, at least, men like Dunn and Draper are millionaires, but they say they aren't interested in selling -- if they can only hang on to the qualities that brought them to the country in the first place.

"Financially, the quicker it develops, the better it is for somebody sitting on a lot of acreage," Draper notes. "But that's not much of a deal in the long run. It used to be I could look out from where we built our house and count on one hand the number of homes. And almost nobody commuted. Now it's hard to find somebody that doesn't commute. And if you have to go to Denver, it takes forty minutes longer to make a round trip because of the traffic."

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