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.