The Erie Insurgency
The tiny of town of Erie rests at the end of a long stretch of farmland west of I-25. Signs of expansion in this old coal-mining town are everywhere: Bulldozers grade fields in preparation for new homes; for-sale signs dot vacant pieces of land; and a steady stream of customers floods the new Safeway -- the town's first grocery store. Dirt streets will be a thing of the past when Erie's road-paving project is completed at the end of the year.
Some residents view the growth as a healthy boost to this once-ailing town. Others are sickened by what they see as a rampant suburban cancer enveloping their little utopia. It is this division over Erie's future -- how much it should grow and in what way -- that will be at the heart of the upcoming Board of Trustees election. In April, four of the seven trustees will be up for re-election, and one seat vacated by a trustee who moved out of town will need to be filled. But if an angry group of slow-growth advocates claims a majority of the seats, Erie's future could take a radically different turn.
The war over growth came to a head last fall, when the Board of Trustees considered annexing a portion of unincorporated Weld County northwest of Erie; the 2,700 acres in question would have been developed into a high-end housing subdivision to be occupied by 4,500 people. The developer wanted the Northfield property to become part of Erie so that the homes would get city water and sewer services. But residents were outraged that a single subdivision could almost double Erie's current population of 5,000. More than 400 people signed a petition calling for a public vote on the matter, and in December, a special election was held. The Northfield annexation was soundly defeated.
Even before the annexation issue arose, however, residents were becoming concerned about growth. Last spring, officials held town meetings to hear what people had to say about Erie's three-year-old comprehensive plan, which they were updating. But "it became quickly apparent that the government didn't have an interest in hearing what the public had to say," says Steve Skapyak, a spokesman for Appropriate Growth Regulations Enhancing Erie (AGREE), a group of a hundred people who organized to fight the perceived lack of representation.
"The people at the meetings expressed a desire for the town to slow down growth; about halfway through those meetings, [the trustees] came out with a comprehensive plan that was supposedly based on the input from town citizens, but there was little, if any, changes to the comprehensive plan they rolled out in 1996."
Already, Erie has approved annexations that will bring in 16,000 more people; the comp plan would allow for a population of 38,000 in twenty years. "A lot of us feel the comprehensive plan was tailored around some of the big developments in the pipeline, like Northfield and now Vista Ridge," Skapyak says.
Vista Ridge is a proposed upscale housing and golf-course development located south of Erie. If the 950 acres are annexed, the subdivision could add another 2,500 people to the town's population. The trustees are going to discuss the annexation on February 22; if they approve it, AGREE members predict, the April 4 election will be even more heated.
The group wants to replace all of the incumbents with people who will rein in growth; its biggest fear is that big-box stores and particle-board homes will transform Erie into another Superior, with its sprawling Rock Creek subdivision. Ballot petitions aren't due until March, so no candidates have officially come forward yet, but AGREE says it plans to produce challengers.
Mayor Vic Smith, who is not running for re-election (he has been mayor for eight years and before that was on the Board of Trustees for two years and on the zoning commission for seven), says growth has always been a big issue in Erie elections. But the presence of AGREE, he says, adds a new twist. "I think they pose a real challenge because of their tactics. AGREE seems to feel that they have no compunction to check facts before they state or publish things," Smith says, explaining that one member of the group wrote a newspaper editorial misstating information about Erie's payroll.
Nancy Jo Wurl agrees. Wurl was appointed to the Erie Board of Trustees in May 1998, when one of the trustees resigned before completing his term. She's up for re-election in April and hopes to keep her seat.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Wurl sits on a bench outside the town hall and talks about how she and her colleagues on the board are characterized as being pro-growth by AGREE members like Reed Schrichte. Schrichte publishes a newsletter called the Erie Watchdog, which reports on city hall.
"He distributes the Watchdog door-to-door -- well, to select doors," says Wurl, on whose doorstep the newsletter seldom lands. Members of AGREE, she notes, are "consummate button-pushers." (As she's talking, Schrichte walks by and enters the town hall without saying hello. "There's Mr. Green himself," she says. "Every town has one.")
"I don't know of anyone on the Board of Trustees who's pro-growth," continues Wurl, a Louisville native who has lived in Erie since 1995. "We all realize Erie needs to grow, but we think it should grow in a controlled way. We have to pay our bills, and we owe our citizens a certain quality of life. We haven't even had a doctor in town for years."
Public input was taken into account at the meetings over the comprehensive plan, she says, "but a lot of their input was 'not in my backyard' and no-growth. Realistically speaking, you can't not grow. Erie hadn't grown in forty years, and life passed it by. We hadn't maintained the wastewater treatment plant or the water mains, and we hadn't paved the streets. We had to replace the treatment plant because it was condemned. We had to move forward with improving things that people expect and deserve in a community. The reality of life is that the Front Range is growing, and if we don't grow along with it, we'll have all the problems of other communities and none of the revenue to solve them."
So Erie passed a bond in 1997 to pay for the new water-treatment plant and the road-paving project, but the town's ability to pay off the debt is dependent on revenues from new development. The defeat of the Northfield annexation was a crippling blow. "A small part of the debt was used to accommodate growth, but most was used to fix infrastructure problems. Growth has paid for all of it, and we've lowered taxes," says Smith. "Since we're along the I-25 corridor, the pressure to grow is enormous. We lost Northfield, yes, but there are other options available -- not many, but some -- and Vista Ridge is one of those."
Schrichte says he, too, would like to see Erie grow, but not in the way most car-dependent suburbs grow. He wants to see businesses and homes close to one another so that it can be a pedestrian-friendly town. He plans to publicize his ideas when he runs for office -- either as mayor or as a trustee.
"It's an interesting time in Erie," says Schrichte, who moved to Erie from Boulder in 1991. "I try not to read too much into [the defeat of] the Northfield annexation, because it was so big that it was easy to shoot down, but I do feel people are looking for some alternative to the typical suburban development pattern. People moved out here to get away from the suburban core -- Broomfield, Westminster, Louisville and Superior. With Northfield, people were desperately hoping to dodge a big bullet. What we're trying to do now is to articulate what the other options are.
"We have to get rid of the bozos in city hall, but we can't just run against them. We have to run for something. When I run, my big motivation will be new urbanism," continues Schrichte. "Erie is kind of the next frontier; this is where the development focus is shifting. Right now it's a blank slate to draw a picture on, but the picture being drawn today is the same old model of suburbia, with subdivisions that don't even integrate with the subdivision next door."
In January, Schrichte handed the town trustees an initiative that would require annexation by public vote only and would require the developer to pay for the election. But voters will have to wait until a special election in May -- one month after the April 4 Board of Trustees election -- before they can vote on that proposal.
"I've waged the growth wars in Erie since day one," says Schrichte. "I've been here long before AGREE. When I run, you'll see a relentless attack on me personally. The status quo will come out for my head. It was always me fighting the dragon alone, but now there's an army behind me. It's a good fight, and it's worth it."
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