Pioneer Growth-Busters

To slow down development, some Coloradans are trying a new strategy: forget about government, do it yourself.

To Jim Nelms, the 72-acre farm outside this rural town near Denver is just as it should be: neatly furrowed rows of overturned earth undisturbed by residential development.

For the former mayor, it's hard to see how the 293-home subdivision planned for this site could be an improvement. Indeed, Deerfield Farms, as the neighborhood is to be known, is a rubicon of sorts for Mr. Nelms. Rather than watch housing project after housing project eat up Colorado's open space, he has taken action, turning to the ballot box to defend his community from overdevelopment.

"I have no problem with growth, as long as it's sensible," says the 42-year Brighton resident. "We're getting carried away with this euphoria about home-building, without preparing for the consequences."

Defending against rampant growth has become a cause clbre in the West - a group of Western governors talked extensively about it at a recent regional meeting. But like a growing number of Westerners who are disenchanted with the continuing sprawl of strip malls and subdivisions, Nelms is spearheading his own charge. From Santa Fe, N.M., to Boise, Idaho, citizens are telling local governments to temper the rapid pace of urban development in their communities.

Here in Colorado, however, activists have gone a step further - circumventing growth-friendly governments by putting the issue before a public vote. The problematic move taps into the region's deep sense of individualism and keys a dilemma for residents, who may face higher housing costs if they want to limit growth.

In Brighton, Nelms's Neighbors for Responsible Growth gathered signatures to put a referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot asking city voters to reverse the city council's approval of Deerfield Farms. In other Colorado cities, residents are also rising up to kennel construction:

* Residents in Golden and Lafayette recently approved citizen's initiatives to restrict the number of building permits.

* In Montrose, on the other side of the Continental Divide, residents petitioned a referendum onto the November ballot barring "superstores."

* And one Arvada resident has even gone so far as to draft a proposed amendment to the state constitution.

The amendment would cap the annual rate of residential construction at the national average - currently about 1.1 percent. The bid is audacious - the amendment's author, Dan Hayes, has to gather 88,000 signatures by August to get the measure on the November 1998 ballot. But he isn't short on confidence.

"I think a lot of people would support this," says Mr. Hayes, a lifelong Colorado resident. "We've got to start thinking about preserving our natural beauty, wildlife, and resources. We can take our fair share, but we don't need to take more than the national average."

Like Hayes, residents in Brighton don't seek to halt development, but they do want to manage it more closely. They are concerned by the sight of mass-produced homes spreading across old farmland, lined up like soldiers in impeccable rows.

Much of the reaction against growth is founded on the belief that residential developers here are building wantonly - outstripping the state's need for new houses. For example, these critics say, job growth in Colorado declined slightly last year, but home-building reached a 13-year high.

Home developers balk at such assertions. They point to the simple law of supply and demand: When people don't want more homes they'll stop buying. Meanwhile, new home sales in the first half of 1997 exceeded the pace set during the first half of 1996 by nearly 8 percent. "There's a tremendous demand for new homes in most parts of Colorado," says Dave Oyler, president of Melody Homes, the Deerfield Farms builder.

The effectiveness of the growth caps themselves is a subject of debate. Some experts say that other measures, such as imposing impact fees on developers, are better ways of mitigating growth's negative impact on the area.

Growth caps "don't get down to meaningful efforts to create an 'urban utopia,' " says James Duncan, a growth-management consultant in Austin, Texas. "What I try to point out to communities is that they should select techniques that best fit their individual needs. Effective growth-management isn't one-size-fits-all."

And others say growth-control measures create as many problems as they solve: most notably, higher housing costs. "If you artificially reduce the supply, you will artificially raise the cost of housing," says Mr. Oyler.

But Nelms, for one, isn't swayed. "The clich is that we have to grow, or we go backward. Well, California proves the fallacy of that," he says. "Our big upsurge in population came from people who left California because they were so dissatisfied with growth there.... But now the same thing is going to happen here."

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