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.

Duke would like to see county planners develop a tougher master plan, one that takes into account the "huge concerns" about water resources and establishes firm, impact-mitigating requirements for new development. His own experience has taught him the need for such a document. Back in 1997, Duke was part of a local group that attempted to negotiate design modifications for the proposed Safeway strip mall in Elizabeth. Safeway's representative rejected their suggestions, pointing out that existing building codes didn't require him to follow any of them.

"He was a little haughty about it, but he was right," Duke says. "You can't change the rules in the middle of the game. That provided an important lesson to me. If you want them to do it a certain way, you have to put it in writing."

He believes there's still time to do just that. "We're not Douglas County," he says. "We can preserve the rural atmosphere, if we're proactive in how we manage it and work with developers. We need to look at even open space as market-driven."

But getting some kind of consensus-building vision of what Elbert County should be on paper is more difficult than it sounds. "It's been a challenge to engage the citizens," Duke admits. "Suddenly, they wake up when the development is across the fence from them. People in urban areas take it for granted that government is going to take care of these issues; we're not in that position yet. We have to stop operating in a crisis mode and work systematically."

In the land of privacy fences, "wilde" tract homes and commuter angst, people generally agree about what they don't want: They don't want another Highlands Ranch, another Douglas County. Figuring out what they do want is another matter. In the mind's eye of the questing commuters, the little bit of country they seek is somehow empty of the very people doing the seeking. But in Elbert County, it's getting harder to conjure a vision of the future that doesn't include all those other people ten, five or two acres away.

"We do need to define it," Duke says. "One of the things we need to do better is talk to each other."

Read related stories in our Places Worth Saving archive

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