Colorado's Worry: Becoming A Los Angeles of the Rockies

Randy and Becky Harris reveled in the pristine beauty of Elizabeth, Colo., when they moved here in 1992 - the country setting, pine trees, and Kodak-moment view of the Rocky Mountains. They bought a home on 5-1/2 acres, convinced it was the perfect place to raise three children.

The only trouble is, a few other people had the same idea. Today Elizabeth, tucked in the rumpled hills 45 miles southeast of Denver, has gone from a rural enclave to one of the fastest-growing small towns in America.

It is a part of the exurbia - the malls, subdivisions, and Petco stores - spreading inexorably along Colorado's Front Range from Denver to Pueblo. Indeed, the nation's four top-growth counties are now all in Colorado.

The result is mounting real estate prices, growing traffic problems, and a vanishing of the open spaces and rural culture that attracted many people here to begin with. The result is also a growing debate in Colorado over how best to cope with the influx - a debate that will help set the pattern for much of the West, which is undergoing a similar boom.

"It's not exactly country life here anymore," says Mr. Harris.

Richard Lamm, who became know as "governor gloom" for his warnings about growth in an earlier era, puts it more starkly: "What really scares me is that we seem to be growing a Los Angeles of the Rockies."

In Elizabeth, as in the rest of the state, the primary issue is how to maintain a high quality of life. The Harris family, for example, moved to Elizabeth to escape the aggravation of the city. "When we moved here, I thought, 'This is it,' that I'd retire here," says Harris, who still commutes to his job as a chemical engineer in Denver. That trip used to take less than an hour. Now, it's 90 minutes on a good day.

On the one hand, Harris could now sell his home for about $230,000 - nearly three times what he paid. "That would be great if we wanted to sell. But we kind of wanted to live here," he says.

In 1990, Elizabeth had 800 residents. Today some 1,300 people live in the town. Another 15,000 reside within a three-mile radius, in subdivisions that have overtaken agricultural land. "Over the past two to three years, growth has been just drastic," says Mayor John Kotelec. "Overall, people here are not happy about it. They want to see Elizabeth remain a small town."

But while many are opposed to more residential development, they do favor commercial growth in Elizabeth. "That's the most difficult thing - to balance the economic development with the sentiment of residents that we remain small," he says.

It is the same broad dilemma facing the state. As recently as the mid-1980s, Colorado politicians were desperately trying to attract growth to stabilize a then-shaky economy. Federico Pea, Denver's mayor at the time, promised development would lead the area to its destiny as "Queen City" of the West. At the time, only the brave dared speak of a downside to growth. Richard Lamm, governor here from 1972 to 1984, was one of them. He hasn't let up.

"I don't think it's a worthwhile challenge to see how many people we can fit into Colorado," he says. "Of course, people have a right to move here. But the growth issue in Colorado is how we settle people."

Larry Kallenberger, director of the state Department of Local Affairs, agrees that unbridled growth and sprawl won't benefit the state. "We lose more than 90,000 acres per year of farmland, ranchland, and open space. [Front Range] cities are all in danger of growing into one another," he says.

Yet managing growth without stifling economic opportunity is a constant source of tension in the West - particularly in an era when many of the newcomers are more environment-minded than some longtime residents. "No state has ever been able to control population growth within its borders," says Mr. Kallenberger. "Do we really want to prevent people by government action from moving to certain places? To me, that's a little Draconian."

The pace of the growth, however, is creating problems. Many local governments can't keep up with the need for schools, roads, services - and water.

For example, in Douglas and Elbert Counties - the top two growth counties in America - tens of thousands of new homes rely on wells for water. As increased demands are placed on the aquifer, hundreds of wells are running dry, forcing homeowners to dig deeper into the prairie.

State officials are well aware of the danger of relying too much on underground aquifers. "The question is whether it's wise policy to rely on a nonrenewable resource that has been laid down over millions of years," says Doug Robotham of the state Department of Natural Resources.

It's not that surface water is scarce. Price is the limiting factor. Historically, most of the state's available water has gone to irrigate crops. But even as farmland disappears, growers feel the competition. Robert Munson, who has farmed 150 acres near Boulder for 20 years, used to lease city water to irrigate corn, pumpkin, and tomatoes. This year city officials say they won't have any extra to lease - which Mr. Munson worries could destroy his farm. "There is so much growth going on that we're getting squeezed out," he says.

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