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.

When locals talk about the "right kind of growth," they're usually referring to pushing for economic development, new jobs and industries, to go along with the new homes. The county has no sales tax and little commercial base, aside from ranching and farming; property taxes alone can't keep up with the demand for new roads, schools and other services brought on by the surge in population.

"We've become a bedroom community like you wouldn't believe," says John Metli, one of three county commissioners. Out of roughly $2 billion in tax assessments in the county, $1.8 billion consists of residential property taxes.

Adding a sales tax would have little effect, Metli contends, since the county has little retail activity. "Sixty percent of our population drives by the Wal-Mart in Parker every day," he grumbles.

Elizabeth's main drag teems with real estate and 
mortgage offices.
Mark Manger
Elizabeth's main drag teems with real estate and mortgage offices.

Metli represents the vast, thinly populated eastern district of the county. He's keen on trying to shape an agritech and business development district along the I-70 corridor, one that would produce energy from wind farms and biomass and draw on local farms for other products -- biodegradable containers made from corn, for example. But he's also been a supporter of higher-density housing developments, such as Spring Valley, in exchange for concessions on water use or open space. "Why should we use taxpayer money for open space when we can have it given to us?" he asks.

That approach hasn't sat well with anti-growth forces in the western end of the county, who say the current commissioners have failed to craft a coherent vision of how to handle growth and have been too quick to appease big developers. The dispute has led to some surprising fractures in the heavily Republican county, along with a search for new ways to cope with the threats posed by rapid commuterization.

In January the county adopted a $2,500-per-home increase in the impact fees it assesses for new developments. It's not much, Metli says, but it's a start; to hike impact fees too rapidly would invite lawsuits. "We need to stay within the law so we don't go to court," he notes. "We have to prove it's not overbearing."

Others say the county could afford to be a lot tougher with its suitors. "There are things that can be done," declares John Dunn, a former county commissioner himself -- as well as a vocal critic of the current officeholders. "I would accept responsible growth that pays its own way."

But does growth ever pay for what it takes away?

Twenty-five years ago, Jeff and Connie Lehman found the pace of life in west Denver becoming too frantic. They went for a picnic in the country and ended up settling in Elizabeth, where Connie, a textile artist, keeps a studio.

For several years, Jeff served on the town board. Although he's seen his share of annexation proposals and much-amended master plans, he says he's never come across a reasonable and reliable blueprint for how growth should be managed in Elbert County.

"I've seen a lot of satellite developments that seem to spring up overnight," he says. "I've always had the feeling that there was no plan, either for the town or the county. We are hit with waves of proposals, and whether they go forward seems to depend more on the economy than anything else."

Lehman believes that Elizabeth, despite lean budget times and periodic tumultuous recalls of local officials, has managed to keep up with the population explosion on most fronts. Its school district has extracted sufficient taxes and fees from new developments to erect a roomy new high school and middle school, and welcome new businesses are cropping up in town, from a day spa to a proposed candy factory. But the morning bumper-to-bumper rush hour along Colorado Highway 86, which runs through the center of the town, has old-timers shaking their heads in disbelief.

"Aside from the congestion, I think it's still a pretty nice place to live," Lehman says. "We haven't had to face a complete change of character yet, which I think would come with a large, Douglas County-type development."

Recently, a proposed high-density development to the west of town was drastically scaled back, but some regard that victory as only a temporary reprieve. Richard Wright, a veteran of the local growth wars, says the influx of newcomers has irrevocably altered the town's outlook and sense of community.

"It's changed the quality of life for the worse," Wright says. "The traffic is a nightmare, and there's no small-town feel at all anymore. I've lived here 34 years, and I know four families in this town now."

Wright and his wife, Lucy, both retired schoolteachers, live in an old farmhouse on the edge of Elizabeth. After teaching high school science in Douglas County for decades, Wright knew it was time to hang it up when he found his drive to work in Highlands Ranch took him through eighteen stoplights. One evening he got lost driving in Daniels Park, a once-pristine area he thought he knew well, now clotted with subdivisions.

Eight years ago, Wright found himself at the forefront of the battle against Phillips Ranch. Developer Jim Nicholson, the former Republican National Committee chairman (and now Bush's ambassador to the Vatican), had sought to put 730 houses on 400 acres across the road from Wright's home. "There was a huge movement to stop it," Wright recalls. "People packed the town board meetings."

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