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.

"In the morning I see a solid line of cars, from 5 a.m. to 7:30, all going into Colorado Springs," Dunn says. "That's not my idea of rural life."

Some of the impacts are even closer to home. No tour of Dunn's spread would be complete without a nod to the homely pump that makes it all possible. In a county with few streams and scant rainfall, almost everyone depends on water from shallow wells that produce from bedrock aquifers -- water that is trapped in layers of rock and sand and is replenished not in decades or even centuries, but over unfathomable stretches of geologic time.

Dunn drilled his 200-foot well in 1963. "Everybody thought we had unlimited water out here, but that's not the case," he says. "My well's down forty feet now. I've lost twenty of it in the last seven years. They're sucking the water out of here."

Jeff and Connie Lehman sought small-town life in 
Elizabeth, now a bedroom community for commuters.
Mark Manger
Jeff and Connie Lehman sought small-town life in Elizabeth, now a bedroom community for commuters.
Jesse Yates is battling a proposed subdivision next 
Mark Manger
Jesse Yates is battling a proposed subdivision next door.

Head north from Dunn's place, and it's not hard to grasp his concerns about what "they" are doing.

Past the snug hamlet of Elbert, past postcard-perfect horse farms and dozing llamas and fields of alfalfa watered by enormous wheeled sprinklers, lies Kiowa, the county seat. The sleepy ag town now has an unsightly collection of colorless, low-slung tract homes grafted onto its hind end, a numbing procession of driveways and privacy fences, each with a single scrawny sapling blowing in the wind. One of the string of real-estate offices along the main drag calls itself Country Dreams; another welcomes inquiries about a "new ranch home on 10 beautiful acres forest ridge $315,000." But you can pick up larger lots for considerably less money if beauty is not an issue.

West of Kiowa, past an industrial park stuffed with porta-potties, is Elizabeth, a community of 1,600 that has borne the brunt of the invasion. The town still has its antique shops and well-shaded clapboard homes, but its quaintness is fading amid a hustle of title, real-estate and mortgage businesses; one company's electric sign flashes time, temperature and current loan rates. The place has even acquired its own edge city, a strip mall on the west end of town featuring a Safeway, gas pumps, drive-thru banking, drive-thru hamburgers and, of course, home loans.

North of Elizabeth, ranches are being replaced by ranchettes. They hug the edges of the remaining stables and farms and mimic their stately white fences. But the country life seems to falter farther up the road, as the lots shrink and the intention grows incoherent. The rural subdivisions have folksy names, with an extra "e" on every "wilde" feature and references to stags and woods and coursing rivers; but the trees are sparse, the water dear, the wildlife chased away.

At the still-emerging Deer Creek Farm, the modest yards have a parched and unfinished look, and the view of the mountains is tempered by the sprawl in the foreground. Like the houses themselves, the new streets -- North Farmhouse Circle, Pine Meadow Avenue -- seem utterly random, an alien design imposed on the high lonesome in the hope that it would stick. Rusty farm machinery and hay bales are parked as decoration along the side of the road, and tiny windmills spin wildly outside the model homes, as if to lure prospects seeking a throwback to a simpler time. But the overall impression is one of something raw and monstrous struggling to be born amid the weeds and construction trash.

Not far from the Deer Creek subdivision, down a pothole-plagued road swept by tumbleweeds, is an even stranger sight: an eighteen-hole golf course with its own restaurant and lounge, and sprinklers jetting arcs of water across the fairways. The Spring Valley course is a swath of fussed-over green hemmed in by brown prairie.

Developer Ron Heggemeier plans to build nearly 1,200 homes around the course, on lots ranging from half an acre to 2.5 acres. To achieve such a high density, Heggemeier intends to tap into existing water sources only for the water needed inside the homes; the new lawns and other external uses will be supplied with sewer water that's been recycled through the development's own effluent treatment plant. This bold experiment in country living, which has never before been tried in the state, has already been approved by the Elbert County commissioners; it's now awaiting an okay from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

From Spring Valley, it's only a few miles to the Douglas County line -- and from there, less than ten minutes to the high-density, high-traffic madness of unincorporated Parker. The metro area now stands poised at Elbert County's doorstep. In fact, the western third of the county is feeling the pinch of growth pressures from three directions: from Colorado Springs commuters coming in from the south, from Castle Rock and Parker to the west, and from Aurora to the north.

Some people in the county are already resigned to the notion that its scenic western edge will ultimately be swallowed up in the sprawl; it's merely a question of how much open space can be preserved, they say, how much tribute can be exacted from the developers and waves of eager commuters. But others insist there's still time to avoid the costly, water-draining blunders of their neighbors in Douglas County. Growth may be inevitable, they say, but it doesn't have to turn out like Highlands Ranch.

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