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.

Yates estimates that Spring Valley Ranch would bring an additional 3,500 residents to the county, adding an additional 8,000 trips per day to the roads; the projected 1,200 additional students in the schools would hike district operating costs by $8 million. Heggemeier says his company is prepared to meet all the requisite impact fees and more, including an additional $400,000 payment to the Elizabeth School District and other payments to the sheriff's office, the county's economic development board and various other groups.

"We're definitely paying our own way," he says. "We've volunteered over and above what was required of us."

Metli is particularly pleased with the plan to set aside 1,000 acres of the 2,232-acre development as open space. But both he and Heggemeier readily acknowledge that more than a quarter of that space could become a second golf course, if demand warrants it.

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.

And it probably will. Spring Valley's houses will range in price from $275,000 to $500,000, and the high-end buyers may expect two golf courses. "We believe the person coming out here is looking for low crime, a little bit of the country," Heggemeier says. "But they're also looking for some of the amenities they have in town."

But when do the amenities take over and the country disappears?

That's what Jesse Yates would like to know. He moved his family to Elbert County five years ago, fleeing the sprawl of Parker. "We didn't like the way it was growing, and fourteen miles east of us was a nice piece of land," he recalls.

Now he faces the prospect of a high-density subdivision practically next door, built by the same company responsible for the 3,200-unit Canterbury Estates in east Parker. He's put up a website ( and even purchased space on billboards in the area to try to alert his neighbors to the "traumatic" effects Spring Valley could have on already crowded schools and roads. But most of his neighbors seem oblivious to his protests.

"These are individuals who moved out here because they don't want to be bothered," Yates says. "They don't see how it's going to affect them down the road. The tipping point may be the next Spring Valley, or the one after that."

Tim Lyons builds spec and pre-sold houses on ten-acre lots outside of Elizabeth. A 2,400-square-foot home, with enough land for a horse and breathing space from your neighbor, goes for around $375,000.

"I like growth," he says. "That's my livelihood. I'd like it to look better than Highlands Ranch."

Yet as larger developers set their sights on the northwest corner of the county, Lyons wonders about the increasing strains on services and quality of life that high-density growth will bring. "Most of the small developers live out here, and they do a good job," he says. "I could make a lot more money doing smaller lots, but it's a burden on the county. Do I have to take every dollar to the grave?"

Lyons lives in the same area in which he builds. His wife is on the local school board, and he served on the county planning commission for eight years. "Elbert County is a blank canvas," he says. "The planning department does the best it can with the resources it has. But political leadership in this county, whether it's pro- or anti-growth -- there's no real foresight. People run for political office for all the wrong reasons. I've watched the leadership flounder around. There's been a lack of imagination and creativity in addressing the problem."

John Dunn hardly ever voted to approve residential developments during his years as a county commissioner, but he was frequently outvoted. He, too, believes that the growth problem requires better and more unified leadership. He and his friend Draper belong to a watchdog group that's determined to put new blood in the commissioner seats this fall, now that two of the three seats are up for grabs.

"This is a critical election," he says. "We have to have people in there who can recognize the problems and take the proper actions while there's still time."

Dunn and Draper say they were ostracized by the local GOP leadership two years ago for the heresy of backing a Democratic candidate for commissioner. (She lost.) "A Republican has to be a dead dog lying in the street not to be elected in this county," Draper notes.

This time around, the watchdog group believes it's found a slate of candidates who happen to be Republican and, perhaps, less gung-ho about adding rooftops than the current bunch. One contender who's won their approval is Ben Duke, a rancher who raises beef cattle south of Elizabeth and works part-time at Urban Peak in Denver.

Duke is hardly an anti-growth fanatic. With Elizabeth already transformed into a bedroom community, he says, it's difficult to bar the door to a rising tide of commuters. "It's unrealistic to say there should be no growth," he points out. "I'm in favor of balanced growth. We're never going to have the outlet malls or Park Meadows. But we could have more small shops, clean industries and offices for people who want to live and work here."

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