Where the Sidewalk Ends
Eagle is the kind of Colorado town that people in less scenic places dream about.
For decades it survived as a supply center for the ranches that were the mainstay of Eagle County. The downtown streets -- wide enough to maneuver a horse and wagon -- are lined with century-old wooden buildings with false fronts, and the general store and saloon do a steady business.
The neighborhoods surrounding downtown Eagle are filled with modest homes that chart the growth of the town like rings on a tree: simple turn-of-the-century frame houses near the center; post-war ranch-style homes halfway up the hill; and more recent homes with large decks on a small bluff on the south side. Everyone has a view of the surrounding mountains and outcroppings that include Bellyache Ridge and the Seven Hermits.
Just south of the town, the Brush Creek Valley opens up like a panorama of the Old West. Leafy cottonwoods line the meandering creek, which passes through hay meadows and wetlands. Ranch houses and barns are scattered about, and fences made of weathered timber show the work of ranch hands long gone. The grassland and river bottom give way to hillsides forested with aspen and pine, and the snow-capped peaks that surround the valley seem impossibly bright in the blue April sky.
Eagle is about twenty minutes west of Vail, the resort town that dominates the county, but it seems a world away. Eagle residents love their mountain valley, and four years ago they decided to protect it.
The town board of trustees held dozens of meetings and brought hundreds of residents to community workshops to create a master plan for growth in Eagle and the Brush Creek Valley over the next twenty years. The plan called for concentrating development around the existing town center, maintaining a non-resort atmosphere, protecting wildlife and open space, and building affordable housing. A boundary was drawn around Eagle that was meant to contain all growth.
The town government worked with Eagle County officials to develop the plan, which cost $106,000. After being adopted by the town board, it was ratified by the county planning commission -- but not the county commissioners -- and officially incorporated into both the town and county master plans.
"We thought that this would guide all development here," says William Powell, Eagle's town manager.
He was wrong.
In 1998, the Eagle County commissioners approved a sprawling development just south of Eagle's city limits that will bring a gated community of 1,100 new vacation homes, four golf courses and 125,000 square feet of commercial space into the Brush Creek Valley. In March the commissioners okayed yet another development, one that will include 300 vacation homes, another golf course and more commercial space in one of the last open parcels in the valley.
When completed, development will sprawl almost continuously for eight miles south of Eagle, as a string of exclusive homes and golf courses -- all behind closed gates -- replaces the open ranch country. Eagle's vision of a compact town surrounded by open space -- something the residents thought they had been assured -- is gone.
More than a hundred miles east of Eagle, on the bluffs of Douglas County, another master plan is about to be violated. In a rural area north of Parker known for its horse lovers and network of bridle paths, residents thought their country lifestyle would be protected by the county's semi-rural zoning. It never occurred to them that an empty 1,032-acre parcel just down the street could become wall-to-wall housing. "The master plan for Douglas County shows one house for every 35 acres on that property," says Barbara Watkins, who lives nearby.
But the parcel is just south of the Arapahoe County line and borders Aurora (which is a part of that county). In December, the developer that owns the property, Gartrell Investment Company, asked Aurora to annex the land, which is just off the E-470 beltway, since it knew that Douglas County wasn't likely to approve its proposal. Aurora agreed, and Gartrell announced plans for 1,500 homes, a 180-acre golf course, a clubhouse and a 35-acre man-made lake on the site. But the proposed annexation is being challenged in court by Douglas County, which is claiming that it violates state law.
If it goes through, Watkins and her neighbors -- who live in scattered homes on three- to ten-acre parcels -- will suddenly find themselves living next to exactly the type of development they moved to Douglas County to avoid. "The only reason they want to annex is they don't want to go by Douglas County's plans," says Watkins.
The spectacle of cities and counties fighting each other over development proposals is, for many people, proof that rules in Colorado governing growth simply don't work. While months and even years are spent coming up with master plans for growth and development, communities are not legally bound by them, and many have ignored their own master plans and those of their neighbors, frustrating residents who thought the guidelines would be followed.
"In every state that's gotten into growth management, it was because the public felt something had to be done," says Don Elliott, a veteran Denver city planner who now serves as vice president of a land-use consulting firm, Clarion Associates. "The public wants a solution."
That solution won't be coming from the state legislature. This year Colorado's elected representatives have once again been unable to pass a single meaningful law dealing with growth, even though opinion polls repeatedly show that voters see sprawl and poorly conceived development as the number-one problem facing the state. Many people thought a growth-management bill that had won the endorsement of both environmentalists and homebuilders would have a good chance of passing, but lobbying by city and county governments killed that legislation. Even a fairly toothless bill that would have simply encouraged cooperation between neighboring cities in planning went down in defeat.
"The state legislature has abdicated its power to do anything," says Elliott. "The legislature is not doing its job."
In exasperation, a coalition of environmental groups is now planning a campaign to place an initiative governing growth on the November ballot. And in an indication of just how frustrated planners are around the state, their main professional organization, the Colorado chapter of the American Planning Association, is playing a key role in fashioning the initiative. Under the proposal, every city and county must designate where it wants to grow and submit those plans to local voters for approval. Once voters sign off on those plans, growth would be allowed only in the designated areas. In addition, cities and counties would be forced to work together and respect each other's growth boundaries.
"People want growth to be reasonable and managed," says Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "Right now, people feel like they're losing control."
Brush Creek Road separates two construction sites just south of downtown Eagle.
On one side bulldozers are already at work turning over dirt for a development the town approved, one that will bring 1,100 homes and double the population of Eagle. The developer, East West Partners, worked closely with town officials to create a plan that met the goals of the Eagle Area Community Plan. The streets will be laid out in a "new urbanist" fashion, on a grid that will link them to the existing downtown. Wetlands along the creek bed that are home to wildlife will be protected, and a system of trails and open space will run through the project. Affordable housing for people who live and work in the area will be a major part of the development, known as Eagle Ranch, and it will contain sites for a school and other public buildings. A public golf course is also planned.
On the other side of the two-lane road that bisects the valley, another development is about to get under way. The Adam's Rib Ranch will consist of 1,100 vacation homes and three golf courses, all behind closed gates. It will be an exclusive getaway for the wealthy, and locals will have little to do with it unless they get jobs cleaning bathrooms, mowing lawns or fixing roofs.
Last spring, the Eagle town board unanimously rejected a proposal by Fred Kummer to annex his property into the town and allow for construction of the Adam's Rib Ranch. Despite the fact that Kummer had offered to build Eagle a recreation center, donate a park and school site and make road improvements, boardmembers said that the addition of more than 1,000 vacation homes would turn Eagle into a resort community and ruin its character.
The project also would have violated the community plan.
But when Kummer failed with the town, he took his proposal right down the street to the offices of the Eagle county commissioners who went ahead and approved it, even though it also violated the county's master plan.
Eagle's elected officials make no secret of their anger at the county commissioners. "This is leapfrog development for very wealthy people," says town trustee Bill Heicher. "It's not something this community needs. This is for second or third or fourth homes. We sure as hell don't need a gated community; we need housing for the worker bees."
"One of the main reasons we turned [Adam's Rib] down was the gates," adds trustee Pam Boyd. "Eagle does not want to be a gated community. How do you apply one set of rules to these people and across the street have a whole other set of rules?"
Kummer himself has also been part of the problem. The St. Louis-based developer has been trying to develop his land since the 1970s (for years, he dreamed of developing a ski area on the south side of the Brush Creek Valley in the White River National Forest but was never able to win permission from the U.S. Forest Service). But he is widely loathed in Eagle, where he's a frequent visitor, and viewed as arrogant and unwilling to compromise.
As an example, Boyd says that one of Kummer's golf course putting greens in Adam's Rib may displace a blue heron breeding ground, but when she raised this as an objection, she says Kummer told her, "I haven't seen any blue herons. Do you want me to protect any flying pink elephants as well?"
Kummer has stirred up controversy elsewhere as well.
He infuriated many people in Denver in 1995 when he insisted on tearing down the I.M. Pei-designed May D&F paraboloid on the 16th Street Mall to make way for an addition to his Adam's Mark Hotel, a project that received a $25 million subsidy from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority.
More disturbingly, his HBE Corporation, which owns the Adam's Mark chain, has been dogged by accusations of racism for years. In 1994 the company lost a $5 million discrimination suit. A key witness testified that managers at the St. Louis hotel told him that both Kummer and his vice president had said they were afraid that having blacks in the employment office was attracting too many blacks to apply for work at the hotel, making the hotel bar "too dark."
And earlier this year, the Adam's Mark settled a racial-discrimination suit in Florida for $8 million. That lawsuit, which was joined by the federal government and the State of Florida, alleged that five black men staying at the Daytona Beach hotel during the 1999 Black College Reunion were subjected to multiple indignities, including being required to wear orange arm bands for re-entry into the hotel while white guests were not, and being harassed by hotel security. In its companion suit, the government said blacks were charged higher rates for rooms and segregated in less desirable areas of the hotel. As a result of the suit, several religious and civic organizations canceled events at the Denver Adam's Mark.
Kummer did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Racism hasn't been an issue in Eagle County, but Kummer's overbearing manner has, and some people believe he might have succeeded sooner in developing his property if not for his attitude. "There are some decent developers out there who believe in inclusion and working with the community, but Fred Kummer isn't one of them," says Hannah Evans, who owns a ranch near Eagle. "He's fought this community every step of the way. He's a spoiled brat."
What most frustrates Eagle town officials, however, is the attitude of the county commissioners. "We attempted to have an intergovernmental agreement with the county that would ratify that we were on a common course," Powell says about the development of the master plan. But such an agreement would have legally bound both the city and county to follow the Eagle area plan, and while that plan was officially added to the county master plan, in Colorado such master plans can be ignored, revised, or even eliminated at any time by elected officials.
Johnnette Phillips, one of the two county commissioners who voted in favor of the Adam's Rib Ranch (Tom Stone also approved it, while the board's lone Democrat, Michael Gallagher, voted against it), insists the county master plan was never intended to be anything more than an advisory document that would change over time. "The master plan is to give general direction," she says, adding that while it was approved by the planning commissioners, their philosophy doesn't always agree with the county commissioners. "I feel the Eagle community plan is outdated and needs to be revamped."
Phillips is also highly critical of the town for spurning Kummer. "They wrote their own destiny when they denied all of Fred Kummer's projects. They failed to work in good faith with Mr. Kummer. I've always felt growth should be within city limits. The town had the choice to annex all of [his] properties so it would be within their control. They also could have had over $9 million of amenities he would have dedicated to the town. They just didn't approve it."
According to Phillips, though, if the county had denied Kummer's proposal as well, he might have simply sold off his land in 35-acre parcels. Under state law, counties aren't allowed to regulate the development of properties with a single home on 35 acres or more. "With 35-acre parcels, we'd have no control," says Phillips. "There would be no infrastructure, and we'd have a lot of septic tanks. It's not as good as a planned subdivision."
Phillips also scoffs at the notion that Kummer's developments will add to sprawl in Eagle County. "Sprawl is a word that's become a cliche. I can recognize it on the Front Range along I-25. This development will be out of sight unless you come into Eagle and drive up the Brush Creek Valley."
At the end of March, the commissioners gave Kummer another victory when they approved his 300-home Frost Creek project even further up the valley. That development -- which will also feature gated vacation homes built around a golf course -- was again okayed by Phillips and Stone, with Gallagher dissenting.
In doing so, the commissioners went against their own planning commissioners, who had recommended in a 5-2 vote that the project be denied, citing the density of the homes, the problem of leapfrogging developments, and the effect on wildlife, specifically the deer and elk that migrate through the valley.
The town of Eagle's Powell points out that there is a strong pro-growth lobby in Eagle County since it has grown so quickly -- posting annual growth rates of 10 to 12 percent -- and that as many as one in five residents now makes his living from construction and development.
In fact, Kummer and other developers are major campaign contributors in Eagle County. Phillips collected contributions from several of Kummer's employees during her 1996 campaign, while in the last election Stone received $495 directly from Kummer's development company and $500 from the Denver law firm that represents him, the politically well-connected Brownstein Hyatt & Farber.
But that doesn't mean the town is anti- development, says Pam Boyd. "We approved 1,100 units, more than doubling the town of Eagle, and yet we're still called anti-growth. We know we have to grow, but why do you have to allow unmitigated greed?"
Sitting on Barbara and Carley Watkins's back porch, you can watch Colorado disappear, acre by acre and mile by mile. Their home is on a hill in Douglas County, northeast of Parker. For 22 years they have lived here, raising their children and riding their two quarterhorses on the extensive network of paths that wind through the sand-colored hills and bluffs of this part of the county. Many of the Watkinses' neighbors have horse barns and share their love of horses and enjoyment of the deer, coyotes, rabbits and occasional antelope that live here.
Looking west, the Watkinses have a sweeping view of the Front Range, from Pikes Peak to Longs Peak. The skyscrapers of downtown Denver sparkle in the distance, and the roar of the city seems far away.
But maybe not for long.
At the bottom of a valley north of the Watkinses' house, E-470 weaves through the countryside, bringing a torrent of traffic and spurring a real estate boom that's made bulldozers as common as field mice. Aurora has already approved miles of new subdivisions along the turnpike, and now the fast-growing city is knocking at the Watkinses' back door.
The city is trying to annex 1,010 acres just down the street from their home. The land sits on the Arapahoe-Douglas county line and is surrounded on three sides by Douglas County, which zoned the area for rural use. But Aurora has already said it will allow the developer, Gartrell Investment Company, to build 1,500 homes, a 180-acre golf course with clubhouse, and a 35-acre lake. The proposed development would be known as "Rocking Horse." Gartrell's lawyer, Tom Ragonetti, declined comment for this story.
"It will absolutely destroy this area. We'll lose the main reason we moved out here to begin with," says Carley Watkins, who blames the construction of E-470 for the growth. "The politicians and developers wanted that beltway, and they were going to get it one way or another. Aurora has very grandiose plans for this beltway."
The annexation effort has prompted a highly unusual legal confrontation between the city and Douglas County. In January, the Douglas County commissioners filed suit against Aurora, alleging that the proposed annexation violated a state law (commonly known as the "1041" regulations) that allows counties to oversee the creation of new communities.
Last week, Douglas County District Court Judge Robert Behrman ruled in favor of Aurora, saying that Colorado law gives cities the power to annex adjacent areas, even if the county objects. Douglas County is expected to appeal the decision, and both sides say the case will eventually have to be settled by the Colorado Supreme Court.
In the suit, the county claimed that the developer "intends to evade the county's land-use regulations by obtaining annexation to the city of Aurora." It alleged that Aurora is attempting to create an "urbanized growth center" in violation of the county's master plan. "The defendants will be developing a property with a high-intensity land use wholly inconsistent with the master plan of Douglas County, in violation of the 1041 regulations, and the development will not be compatible with the existing land use in the surrounding area," the lawsuit reads.
Douglas County officials declined comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation, but Aurora City Attorney Charles Richardson says that Colorado law usually gives the upper hand to municipalities that are annexing with the permission of property owners. "This is a pretty straightforward legal issue, whether the municipal annexation law trumps the 1041 law," he says. "It's a basic clash between the two forms of government."
Aurora officials make no apologies for the annexation effort. They say Aurora doesn't intend to do more annexations into Douglas County, but this was a special case. "We received a proposal for this property that was immediately adjacent to our property, and it was something we thought would fit into our plan," says Diane Truwe, director of development services for Aurora. "We thought it made a lot of sense in terms of the growth of the metro area. It's not leapfrog development. We had full city services immediately adjacent."
Truwe says Aurora is far more responsible in dealing with growth than Douglas County, which is largely dependent on groundwater that will eventually be depleted. Aurora has sustainable city water supplies. "If this was developed in Douglas County, it would all be non-renewable resources depleting the aquifer," she says. "We don't believe that water wells and septic tanks are the way to provide for urban growth."
And according to Truwe, the proposed development would be a high-quality community that would give Aurora a PGA-quality golf course. "It was not our intent to annex into Douglas County. We did it once before and it created such a furor, we decided not to do it again. But this particular proposal made a lot of sense to us."
For the people who would actually live next to the project, it makes no sense at all.
"We know growth is going to take place, but it should fit with the surroundings," says Pierce Parker, who has lived in the area since the 1970s. "We believe Aurora is development-oriented and wants high-density housing. It's not a government entity we want to be associated with."
Parker and his wife were looking for a place where they could raise horses when they moved to the rural subdivision almost thirty years ago. "It was marketed as relatively large acreages with horse facilities available," he says.
The Parkers still have three quarterhorses, and their two daughters grew up taking care of the horses and frequently riding on the trails. "There are horse shows all over this part of the county," says Parker. "One of the best breeding places for Palominos is just down the road."
What angers Parker most about the potential annexation is that he and his neighbors will have no say over a development across the street from their homes. "The City of Aurora is deciding the fate of hundreds of surrounding homes, and they're going against the county master plan," he says.
After thirty years of doing nothing, some people, like the Parkers and the Watkinses, thought this would be the year Colorado lawmakers might actually do something about sprawl.
A highly unusual coalition of business and environmental groups came together to support legislation that would have required every urban area in the state to establish a boundary beyond which growth would not be allowed. This concept was pioneered in Oregon and has been copied by several other states. The bill would also have mandated that cities allow for the construction of new housing when they let new businesses in. With more than one million new residents expected in the state over the next two decades, the bill's backers hoped that Colorado's elected officials would take their heads out of the sand.
But the legislators opted to keep their eyes wide shut, killing all the major growth-related bills.
"It's the number-one issue in the state as far as the people are concerned, but not with the government," Watkins says. "There's been three or four growth bills introduced in the legislature, and not one has been passed. All this talk about smart growth is just for public consumption. They don't intend to do anything about it."
"The General Assembly should be ashamed of itself -- it's ignored the will of the people," adds state senator Bryan Sullivant, the Breckenridge Republican who sponsored the most talked-about bill, known as the Responsible Growth Act.
Lobbyists for Colorado's city and county governments played the key role in killing Sullivant's bill, but the legislature also refused to pass a tepid bill supported by local governments that would have simply encouraged neighboring cities to cooperate in planning.
Lawmakers' ringing endorsement of the status quo has convinced environmentalists that they have no choice but to go directly to the voters with an initiative campaign. "We really tried in the legislature to get bills passed," says Woody Beardsley of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (COPIRG). "We had some real hope this year."
A coalition that includes COPIRG, the American Planning Association (APA), the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters has already submitted plans for an initiative to the Colorado Legislative Council. The proposed initiative would require cities and counties in Colorado to prepare maps of future growth areas and submit them to local voters for approval. Growth would be limited to areas where water and sewer services would be available within a ten-year period, and cities and counties would also be required to work together in drawing growth maps.
"Without someone forcing the communities to work together, everyone is out for themselves," says Jean Hagen, the chair of the legislative committee for the APA. She says many planners feel that the public blames them for sprawl when it is really elected officials who are making the decisions.
The most unusual aspect of the law, which would be an amendment to the state constitution, is the provision giving local voters the power to approve growth boundaries. Environmentalists are betting that the voters will be less likely to be swayed by big-spending developers than politicians have proven to be.
"We think voters should have a right to say what will happen in their communities," says Jones.
Critics of the initiative fear that giving voters the power to make land-use decisions will lead to narrow-minded "not in my backyard" policies, and they predict housing costs could skyrocket as a result.
"This is being promoted as a simple solution to a complex problem," says Steve Wilson, spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver. The homebuilders were an important part of the coalition that had formed to support Sullivant's bill. In return for going along with the growth boundaries, they won a provision that would have made it easier for them to win approval for new housing projects inside those boundaries. But since the proposed ballot initiative doesn't include such a provision, they plan to campaign against it.
Currently, homebuilders are frustrated by the numerous zoning delays they face in the suburbs, and they say those delays are part of the reason the price of new housing has risen dramatically in metro Denver. Wilson says many suburbs are intentionally trying to drive up housing prices, requiring larger homes and discouraging multi-family housing, all in an effort to make their communities more elite: "It's a national phenomenon, where suburban communities are extremely selective about who gets to live there. We've seen a number of cities that have followed Boulder's lead of restricting housing while encouraging business growth."
For many people, Boulder County has become an example of how not to control growth. The City of Boulder cut back on new housing while simultaneously allowing huge growth in jobs, and the resulting traffic jams and sprawl in surrounding communities like Louisville and Superior -- where most of the people who work at those new jobs have gone to live -- has brought a slice of Southern California to the Flatirons. Broomfield has compounded the traffic woes by allowing for the creation of thousands of new jobs at the Interlocken business park while limiting permits for new housing. As a result, many of the people who work at Interlocken have to commute from as far away as Erie.
States like Oregon that have enacted growth boundaries have also passed laws making it easier for builders to break ground on new housing inside the boundary. Cities such as Portland have also become more dense as a result of the law -- lots are smaller, and townhomes and condominiums are more common. Since a growth boundary inevitably makes land more expensive, builders have to create more density to keep prices from skyrocketing. While critics have suggested that boundaries in Colorado will hike the cost of housing, Portland's average home costs are about the same as Denver's.
Even people who support the proposed initiative say voters will have to be educated to understand that if they don't want sprawl, they'll have to accept more density in their own backyard. The current controversy over "lot-splitting" in the central Denver neighborhood of Hilltop, whereby two houses are squeezed onto a lot that previously held a single home, shows how even urban homeowners will often resist density.
"If people vote for no infill, you'll have sprawl," says Don Elliott. "But over time, there's a lot of evidence that the voters do make intelligent decisions."
Beardsley says traffic woes around the Denver Tech Center and Interlocken will help people understand that it makes sense to build multi-family housing in the suburbs, so people can live close to where they work. "This will make people rethink how things happen," he predicts.
If the initiative meets the legal requirements set by the state, including the "single-subject" rule, supporters plan to begin gathering signatures in mid-May.
Oregon's growth laws have been fine-tuned over the years, and Jones says the same thing will likely happen in Colorado if the initiative passes. She believes it will be just the beginning. "You will hear people criticize this initiative because it doesn't include this or that," she says. "We can't address everything in one initiative. It's not a silver bullet."
If the initiative had already been passed, however, it would have prevented the Eagle County commissioners from overriding the town of Eagle's master plan, and it would have required Aurora and Douglas County to coordinate their own master plans for the neighborhoods on the county line.
Up in Eagle, it's probably too late to save the community plan town residents were counting on to preserve their way of life. The fate of the Brush Creek Valley has been settled, even if the outcome isn't what most Eagle residents desired. Town officials say Eagle is now a perfect example of everything that's wrong with the way Colorado grows.
"We're the poster child for bad planning," says town trustee Heicher.
Boyd is saddened that her children will come of age in an Eagle that may be far different from the old ranch town of today, and she makes it clear that she holds her elected officials responsible.
"This is a beautiful little town," she says. "I feel like two people can ruin what this community has been forever, what I've always envisioned for my kids and grandkids. It's really frustrating."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.