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.

Despite overwhelming opposition, the board approved the proposed annexation. Five of the six boardmembers who backed Phillips Ranch were promptly voted out of office. A subsequent popular referendum put the brakes on the whole project and imposed a growth cap on new homes within the existing town. Nicholson sold the property to a local philanthropist (who so far has kept it undeveloped) -- but not before filing lawsuits against several of his critics, including Wright, claiming harassment. A lien was slapped on Wright's property; he had to hire a lawyer to get it removed.

In 1997, many of the same local activists tried to rally opposition to the Safeway strip mall at the edge of town. "They knew what would happen," Wright says. "The town moves to the outskirts."

But many locals wanted the convenience of a suburban-style grocery chain, even though it meant driving a local grocer out of business; town officials were practically salivating at the prospective tax base. The anti-growth forces lost that battle -- and many since.

Mark Manger
John Dunn has weathered forty years of growth in 
Elbert County.
Mark Manger
John Dunn has weathered forty years of growth in Elbert County.

Wright takes no comfort in the county's master plan. The mere mention of the document, which is more of a guide than an ironclad set of regulations, produces a bitter chuckle. "The commissioners change it every time they have a meeting," he says. "Parker had a master plan, and look at the abomination they have there. People come out and talk about the water issue at meeting after meeting, and it doesn't make any difference. The people who've got money do whatever they want. They just throw money at you until they win."

In recent years, the Wrights have spent more time at a vacation home in Wisconsin and less in Colorado. The Wisconsin town is bigger than Elizabeth but feels smaller, somehow; the pace is slower, the infrastructure better established. And neighbors tend to know each other -- a stark contrast to the commuter culture that is emerging in Elbert County.

"If you built a privacy fence in Wisconsin, your neighbors would be highly offended," Wright says. "That's the first thing people do in Colorado. They get up at six and leave for work, come back at six and stay in their houses. They don't want to know anybody."

Wright doubts that the people in the beige tract homes now dotting the landscape west and north of town have much connection to the community he once knew.

"Elizabeth is at the breaking point," he says. "It's stuck in a sea of beige sprawl. And once the beige subdivisions become a majority, it's over. This is the good life to them. If they wanted to build Phillips Ranch now, I don't think there would be anyone to fight it."

The pernicious economics of sprawl have been likened to a runaway train, a Martian invasion, a cancer, a virus. The biological metaphors are probably most appropriate; even the term "subdivision" evokes images of a malignant cell that replicates itself -- first slowly, then at an exponential pace, until its host sickens and dies.

Decades ago Colorado legislators came up with what's known as the 35-acre rule, an effort to invoke some regulatory control over the process of splitting up land into residential lots of less than 35 acres. The intent was to curb rip-and-run developments by requiring that minimal infrastructure and services -- streets, utilities, fire protection and so on -- accompany the new construction. But the law had unintended consequences; it became an engine of sprawl.

Cutting up ranchland into 35-acre parcels requires no particular talent, but it does raise the market value of that land -- and the land around it. In time the rising land values make the notion of smaller lots more attractive, then inevitable. Ten acres, then five, then two, then one. New roads and utility lines make the process even more viable economically, increasing the demand for more lots, more infrastructure and more services.

In Elbert County today, a developer doesn't have to hook buyers up to a central water supply (as opposed to an individual well) unless the lots are under ten acres; he doesn't have to provide a central sewer line unless they're under five acres, which has resulted in a proliferation of septic systems. But that hasn't dissuaded the new arrivals from expecting -- and demanding -- the kind of county services they knew in the suburbs, from paved roads to snowplows to prompt police and fire service.

"They buy a new home on a dirt road because it's Utopia," says Wright. "Then the first time it snows, they're at the county commissioner meetings bitching about the mud."

Years ago, the absence of big-city amenities might have dissuaded folks from moving to the county, but not any more. "For a long time, about one out of five families who moved out here would stick," says Draper. "It wasn't what they thought it would be. They had to fight the elements and commute and so on. But now they've got better vehicles, better roads -- and most of the time, better weather."

"We never get snow like we used to," Dunn laments. "If we got snow like we had twenty years ago, it would shut down half the houses in this county."

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