GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. - Close to 500 people packed a public hearing at the Garfield County Courthouse on Feb. 8. They overflowed onto the stairs, while local public radio broadcast all 14 hours of testimony.
The issue inflaming locals was growth, with county commissioners poised to vote on whether to approve a mixed-use development - essentially a new town - in this once rural area 35 miles from Aspen. Sanders Ranch, the proposed development, would put 561 residential units and almost 300,000 square feet of commercial space on 280 acres of a former ranch in the Roaring Fork Valley. The site lies on a wide part of the valley floor along one mile of Highway 82, between ranchland and a low-density residential-commercial area. It is dominated by views of 12,953-foot Mount Sopris to the south and maroon-tinted ridges to the west and east.
The population of Garfield County has grown more than 30 percent since 1990, so developers assumed the climate was ripe for a large-scale development such as Sanders. Skyrocketing real estate prices in the Vail valley and growth-controlled Aspen drive residents downvalley (HCN, 4/5/93: ASPEN: A colonial power with angst), and refugees from the overcrowded Front Range come seeking a lifestyle change. A recent moratorium on homes over 3,500 square feet in Pitkin County, some say, will push even more growth on neighboring counties. But the demand for affordable housing exceeds the municipalities' ability to provide it - house prices in Glenwood Springs increased by 81 percent between 1991 and 1997, and averaged $332,000 last year in nearby Carbondale and El Jebel.
Consultant Stan Clausen, a land-use planner on the project, pointed out that Sanders Ranch offered "a lot of community benefit." The several-inch-thick proposal offered high-density housing in close proximity to retail and office space. The planner's drawings showed a 54-acre conservation easement, a community center, ball fields and open space.
"We addressed the issues of transportation, affordable housing and natural resources," says Jim Lochhead, spokesman for the project. "It was designed to reach the entire spectrum of the real estate market."
Sanders Ranch became a political hot potato. Editorials in the local media elevated the issue to a critical state, and accusations flew that the county commissioners were in the pocket of the real estate industry, which had contributed to their campaigns. The county rarely turned down development proposals, and after the county planning commission recommended approval, opponents thought their case was lost.
"Just too much"
But the developer's vision was not accepted. Of the 155 people who spoke at the hearing, 137 were opposed, including several real estate and construction professionals. Petitions and 212 letters, e-mails and transcribed phone calls were entered as citizens' exhibits, the majority of them urging the commissioners to vote no. After midnight, the commissioners voted unanimously against Sanders Ranch.
The remainder of the crowd burst into applause, surprised yet pleased by the decision. "This was a turning point "line in the sand" type of development," says Susan Hassol of the Roaring Crystal Alliance, a citizens' group that fought the project. "You couldn't deny the power of the people."
Practical concerns about Sanders were voiced, such as added infrastructure costs to taxpayers, increased traffic on heavily used Highway 82, and the drain on downtown businesses. But they were almost drowned out by the less tangible, emotional arguments against Sanders: loss of quality of life, fear of looking like the rest of suburban America with strip malls and auto-oriented sprawl, and the need to preserve landscapes for aesthetic reasons.
"It's just too much," says Carbondale resident Kate Schutt.
"Citizens are sick of seeing their quality of life sold to some out-of-state developer," says Bob Schultz of Roaring Crystal Alliance.
Opponents were also skeptical of the developer's promises. "Those pretty little drawings were just pretty little drawings," says Carbondale resident Randy Schutt, who admits he's "made good money off of growth," but didn't trust this project for a number of reasons. Others said the demand for affordable housing generated by Sanders' retail component would far exceed the 10 percent offered in the proposal. They were also concerned about the impact the development would have on a riverside heron rookery, despite the proposed conservation easement.
Others said the Sanders development was unnecessary, since 9,000 residential units are already slated for development in Garfield County.
"It looked real good on first take," admits Commissioner Walt Stowe. "It was good use of valley floor land." But the commissioners felt the developer did not adequately address, or offer to pay for, added infrastructure costs. "The applicant failed to pursue the proper channels," he says. "With proper zoning and access, we could have approved it."
The public process weighed heavily on Commissioner John Martin. "Yes, it plays a very important part in making a decision," he says.
A quality of life issue
Sanders Ranch opponents felt they took on a giant and won. "No matter what you're inclined to do, if you have 500 people standing before you, you're going to listen," says Chuck Vidal, a developer who spoke out against Sanders because he thought it represented leapfrog development.
Roaring Fork Valley residents are sure they haven't seen the last of Sanders Ranch or developments like it. But the momentum gained from the high-profile battle is inspiring the Roaring Crystal Alliance to lead an initiative for an open-space ballot question.
"Each community is starting to define its quality of life," says Vidal. "It's hard to quantify, but when 500 people develop the energy to get involved like they have here, they are addressing that issue."
"I'm pretty hopeful we're turning the tide," says Schultz.
Catherine Lutz is a High Country News intern.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Bob Schultz of the Roaring Crystal Alliance, 970/963-3670, email@example.com;
- Garfield County Commissioners, 109 8th St., Suite 300, Glenwood Springs, CO 81601 (970/945-5004).