The developers had money, business leaders and most of the town's elected officials on their side. But last week, the citizens of Berthoud decided to stick with their beleaguered growth cap, rejecting a proposed exemption that would have allowed for massive development of a 4,200-acre parcel of land along the northern I-25 corridor.
A solid 55.7 percent of the town's voters rejected Initiative 200, while 44.3 percent voted in favor of it. The double-digit spread was a sweet victory for supporters of the cap and a stunning defeat for McWhinney Enterprises of Loveland, the developers who'd sponsored the initiative and hoped to master-plan thousands of homes on the I-25 site. The cap, a grassroots initiative that limits residential growth in Berthoud to no more than 5 percent annually, was approved last year -- and has been under assault from developers ever since ("Scenes From a Sprawl," August 9).
"This was a major shock to the other side," says John Meyer, a Berthoud resident who joined growth-cap author Brian Anderson in spearheading the fight against the exemption. "I don't think the McWhinneys were as troubled by it as the town's board of trustees, who spent their own money to try to get this thing through."
Supporters of the exemption outspent the growth cap's defenders in the campaign by a margin of nearly ten to one. The contributors included members of Berthoud's board of trustees, who paid out of their own pockets to distribute a letter endorsing the exemption. (Only one trustee, Jenny Foote, opposed the exemption.) "They didn't just crawl into bed with the McWhinneys; they did a backflip off the headboard," Meyer observes.
But the battle isn't over yet. Next month, a special election will be held to determine if the growth cap should be eliminated entirely. That initiative is being pushed by mortgage broker Lou Gassner, president of the Berthoud Chamber of Commerce, who claims that the growth cap is driving builders and businesses away from bustling Berthoud and into the embrace of neighboring boomtowns.
If the growth cap survives, Troy McWhinney, vice president of development for McWhinney Enterprises, has indicated that he might seek to develop part of the I-25 site in conjunction with another municipality, such as Johnstown. Landowners of one 1,600-acre property at the site have already filed suit in an effort to undo the flagpole annexation that made their land subject to Berthoud's growth restrictions.
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"I don't think the voters understood the ramifications of letting the control go to Johns-town," says Berthoud mayor pro-tem Jeff Hindman. "Growth is going to happen there whether Berthoud is in control of it for not."
Meyer says he's not troubled at the prospect of the property going to another township. The McWhinney proposal -- which was recently named to the "Sprawl of Shame" list issued each year by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group -- would have strained town services and added to the area's traffic and sprawl, he contends, while Berthoud's critical need is not rooftops, but retail development for its highway interchange.
"Whoever gets [the property] can have the tax burden," he says. "Let Johnstown be saddled with the expensive residential development, and we'll develop the retail and commercial property next door."
Growth-cap supporters expect to be outspent in next month's election, too. "We're going to have to get creative with fundraising to counter this thing," Meyer says. "But our basic strategy won't change. We're just going to bombard them with facts."