Spaced Out

In the mid-Eighties, investors from around the country began pouring money into a proposed real estate development just outside the town of Morrison. Over the next few years they wrote checks for tens of millions of dollars; one Pennsylvania bank alone injected close to $50 million into the project, called the Mount Carbon Metropolitan District.

But in July, after ten years of bad luck, management blunders, a savings-and-loan crisis and a few instances of suspect money handling, the venture finally crashed, filing for protection from its creditors in federal bankruptcy court. Despite the massive amount of money that went into the development, there is precious little to show for it. A few cracked roads wind into the rolling hills and then end. The rest of the 1,000-acre site remains vacant.

And that's fine with Craig Lis. Although Mount Carbon's failure decimated some of the original investors, it has brought a measure of personal bliss to the 36-year-old Lis.

Lis lives on the eastern edge of the site, in a four-year-old neighborhood called Green Mountain Village. Since moving there, he has greatly enjoyed the wide open space. When he gets home from his job as a Denver water engineer, or on the weekends, he slips through a neighbor's fence, walks a few steps through the backyard, and is greeted by sweeping fields and stunning views south along the foothills, north to Green Mountain and west to Red Rocks Amphitheater.

It couldn't last forever, and last year the view started to look cloudy. A California developer, Tom Rielly, purchased 385 Mount Carbon acres for about $4 million. Soon after that, Rielly announced his intention to develop the land, with up to five homes per acre, in accordance with zoning approved long ago.

But by 1996, Lis had gotten used to the solitary walks and quiet evenings. "This is called Coyote Gulch," he says, noting a small depression in a vast field of tall grass and wildflowers. "The development would take place just over that ridge." He nods to the west, where, beyond the ridge and on the other side of C-470, slabs of red rock rise out of the foothills' first swells.

So early this year, Lis began passing petitions, asking neighbors and friends to help him place an initiative on Lakewood's November ballot to change how the land could be used. If the citizens of Lakewood approve Lis's initiative, the area will be rezoned to the point that it might not even be feasible to develop. At least that's Lis's fervent hope.

The move infuriated Rielly. He has pointed out that the Mount Carbon land has been zoned for development for years: Plans were reviewed and approved by a number of task forces and government bureaucrats. Moreover, both Lakewood and Jefferson County at one time or another passed on the chance to buy the acreage as open space. Rielly has made it clear that if the initiative passes, he intends to sue the City of Lakewood, within whose limits the land falls, for the millions of dollars he has already invested and the millions more he would lose in potential profit.

Lis could not care less. "If you act out of fear of lawsuits, then where does that get you?" he asks. "We're seeing development occur too quickly. It's eliminating the reason we moved here. This just seems a way we can affect government without going down to city council meetings, explaining our concerns and then getting the brushoff. Well, now they've got 5,500 signatures in their in-box telling them to listen to us."

Fed up with a government that seemed to be growing out of control, in 1992 Colorado residents struck back, voting in favor of Amendment 1. Also known as the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, the initiative aimed to slim down government bureaucracy by reining in the amount of taxes it could collect. Now Coloradans are starting to use the same grassroots approach to check the state's phenomenal growth.

It's a big target. Since 1990, Colorado's population has spurted by nearly 600,000 people. That increase has set off a development chain reaction: New residents need new homes, new places to shop, new services. In 1990, local governments issued 11,400 building permits. By 1995 the number was more than triple that, up to nearly 37,000.

In survey after survey, Colorado residents have targeted the state's astounding growth--too fast, too much, too ugly--as their primary worry. Yet despite that anxiety, nothing seems to stop growth or even slow it down.

"There is a bigger discrepancy between public opinion on growth and the ability of the political system to do anything about it than any other issue I've seen in thirty years of government," complains former governor Dick Lamm. "Growth is the number-one concern of Colorado residents, and we've still lost the battle all the way down to Castle Rock; the Boulder Turnpike, which used to be the most beautiful inner-urban highway in the United States, is lost, too."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer