Snap Judgments
Anthony Camera

Snap Judgments

This is the never-ending election.

Because even after all the counts and recounts are completed, Florida finally sinks into the sea, and the U.S. at last has a new President-elect, Colorado won't have the one thing that would prove a more lasting legacy than four more years: sensible growth control.

Six million dollars tells us so.

In this corner: Coloradans for Responsible Reform, the reasonable-sounding name for the unreasonably well-funded opponents of Amendment 24, who poured six million smackers into their campaign to stop the growth-control initiative. It was the most expensive campaign since Colorado's citizen-initiative process was introduced, 90 years and 175 amendments ago.

In the other corner: Coloradans for Responsible Growth, the group led by outdoors photographer John Fielder, a Colorado icon who conceived of Amendment 24 two years ago, and then led a grassroots campaign to push the initiative through. Fielder's motive was nothing more complex than wanting to save the Colorado that was fast disappearing from in front of his lens. Unfortunately, the wording of his initiative was so complex that opponents could drive right through it, over it and then jump on the carcass with six million bucks' worth of force. Extreme force for a measure the opponents had tagged as "too extreme for Colorado."

Right before Tuesday's vote, and even on election night, some of Amendment 24's most ardent opponents were promising -- promising! -- that if Colorado voted down the growth-control initiative, they'd get right to work on coming up with an alternative plan. And of course, so were those more sympathetic to growth control. "Regardless of how you feel about Amendment 24 and regardless of whether it passes or not," state senator Ed Perlmutter pronounced at an October 25 press conference, "there are many issues related to growth in Colorado that are not addressed in the ballot question -- but must be. In fact, the question would not be on the ballot at all, if the Republican majority had not thwarted every piece of sensible growth legislation to come before the legislature."

"There has to be some kind of enforcement mechanism that gives people confidence that smart growth plans will actually work," agreed fellow Democrat Stan Matsunaka.

But if you think Colorado's developers, and the legislators whose seats they helped buy this week, are truly interested in devising a reasonable, smart growth plan, I have a starter home in Highlands Ranch I'd like to sell you.

While many who voted against Amendment 24 were truly concerned about the clumsy language of the 2,000-word initiative, language that would have been inserted into the already clumsy Colorado Constitution (at 45,679 words, the ninth-longest in the country, according to just re-elected Republican representatives Don Lee and Mark Paschall, who have embarked on their own campaign to cut back on constitutional amendments), they weren't the people laying out the big bucks. Here's who was: Canadian developer Carma, which just reported its third straight year of over 20 percent cash return on its equity, according to its Web site, and "achievement largely due to the diversification into Denver, Colorado, in 1997" -- and which, as thanks, contributed $50,000 to defeat 24. Dozens of other developers did the same. Just a hundred corporate contributors -- many of them from out of state -- ponied up over $3 million to fight Fielder.

In fact, the best reason to vote for Amendment 24 may have been the people who were against it. The initiative had flaws, fatal ones to some voters, chief among them the sad reality that as part of the state constitution, the measure initially would have done less to stop growth than it would have to start an endless spate of lawsuits and court challenges. And even if the measure ultimately passed legal muster (Colorado's Amendment 2, for example, was knocked out by the U.S. Supreme Court years after its 1992 passage by state voters), by requiring that counties and cities with populations of 100,000 and higher develop growth plans and submit them to voters for approval, it would have proved a full employment act for professional campaigners: the kind who collected hefty checks fighting Amendment 24.

While former legislator Chris Paulson acted as frontman, high-priced behind-the-scenes operative Rick Reiter crafted the campaign that flooded the airwaves all fall. (As for that actress -- a fourth generation Coloradan, but an actress just the same -- who said that "as a mother" she didn't have time to read complicated growth and zoning proposals, did anyone else want to buy her a one-way ticket to Los Angeles?) Whether because of those commercials (highly unlikely) or because Colorado voters found time to actually read the initiative (more likely), support for 24 dropped from 78 percent at the end of summer to just 30 percent this week.

It's a shame that this Fielder crusade didn't have the marketing momentum of his recent book, Colorado 1870-2000, now a requisite for every coffee table in Colorado. In that year-long project, Fielder documented the actual physical changes in the landscape from the time when pioneering photographer William Henry Jackson captured the state on film over a century ago, and when Fielder himself took pictures from the same spots in the late '90s. He hiked more than 250 miles and drove over 25,000 miles to complete the book, a journey that inspired him to take more direct action to preserve the state not just in photographs, but in actuality. "I realized it had the potential to be pervasive in Colorado," Fielder, a former department store manager before he quit to pursue photography full time in 1981, told Westword earlier this year. "It was a chance to sell the message." But while the book was an amazing hit, propelled by marketing deals, co-sponsors -- including the Rocky Mountain News, which would later editorialize against Fielder's amendment -- and partnerships that included everything from mugs to museum memberships, Amendment 24 just wasn't an easy sell.

Fielder's promised to work with the legislature, and perhaps come back to the voters in 2002 if Colorado's politicians don't come up with a reasonable plan. Because the concept of growth control isn't "too extreme" for Colorado. These are extreme times, and Coloradans are ready to pay a price to save their state. They know if they don't keep the pressure on elected officials -- from the smallest county's commissioner to the governor himself -- that developers will rush to fill that gap. Developers and related businesses have made billions off of Colorado's boom in the last decade, a boom that's resulted in houses marching up the foothills toward the Continental Divide, houses filling in the last open space along the Boulder Turnpike, houses sucking up the Douglas County aquifer and draining Colorado dry, houses stretching across the plains to Kansas.

Colorado's unrestrained growth is not a pretty picture. It's enough to make you long for the bust of the late '80s, back when Neil Bush and the gang at Silverado Savings & Loan dumped billions of dollars in bad loans on taxpayers. (Any chance Neil is helping out with the recount in Florida? He's a whiz with numbers: his one connection to a then-president multiplied into big benefits for Silverado's principles, who never paid for their sins with a day in jail.)

Coloradans for Responsible Reform still had a few thousand bucks clinking in their coffers this past weekend, so they paid to wrap the dailies in their slogan, sticking the papers in "No on 24" plastic bags. "Warning," read more dreaded fine print on those bags, "Misuse may cause suffocation."

Colorado's unrestrained growth is not a pretty picture. Next time you catch a glimpse of the sprawl stretching in all directions off of I-25, or 1-70, or just about any highway and byway in Colorado, remember those words: "Misuse may cause suffocation."


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