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Know the West

Colorado's growth amendment rouses voters


Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories.

Landscape photographer John Fielder is a household name in Colorado, but he hasn't had time to document the changing aspen leaves this fall. He's too busy championing Colorado's proposed Amendment 24. "From now until Nov. 7, the camera's packed away, until we get this passed," he says.

Fielder says Amendment 24 - called the Responsible Growth Initiative - is the only way to protect the Colorado scenery he loves to photograph.

Though Colorado activists didn't collaborate closely with supporters of the Citizens' Growth Management Initiative in Arizona, the two proposals are remarkably similar. Amendment 24 would require cities and counties over a certain size to prepare maps of future growth areas, accounting for the costs of all roads, water and sewer systems planned for the next 10 years. The plans would be subject to voter approval, and any changes would require another vote.

"We're not trying to stop growth, not even slow growth, but to manage growth more responsibly," says Fielder. He says the constitutional amendment would push construction closer to cities and towns, discouraging the use of open space for development.

Early October polls show the initiative winning, and the development industry is fighting hard. The "No on 24" campaign has amassed $4.1 million in contributions, largely in big checks from developers.

Supporters have $320,000 to spend, made up mostly of contributions from environmental groups.

A few local governments are applauding the proposal. Jacque Whitsitt, a Basalt town trustee, says, "This is going to reinforce what we already do. We'd love it if the counties and our neighbors were on the same page."

But many town and county officials have lined up against the plan, fearing an endless cycle of expensive elections. They disagree with Fielder's view that the process of voter approval would be "as bottom-up as it gets," arguing that state-mandated planning is anything but.

Opposition is also coming from less predictable directions. Jay Fetcher, the founder of the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust and a candidate for the state Legislature, says the planning process would be "cumbersome" and worries that ranchers would "have to carry the load for providing open space" to densely built towns and cities. The Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts has not taken a stand on the proposed amendment.

Two Habitat for Humanity offices in Colorado have also taken a rare political stand against the initiative. "If Amendment 24 passes, our ability to continue doing what we do is severely threatened," says Lori Vaclavik, executive director of Habitat's Denver office. The cost of property for Habitat's affordable-housing projects, she says, would "jump astronomically." She also fears that voters would oppose growth maps that include affordable housing.

Supporters acknowledge that local growth controls can create Boulder-like pockets of high-priced housing. But they argue that a statewide planning requirement may help keep housing costs down; like Arizona activists, they point to Oregon's 27-year-old land-use plan. While the median cost of a house in Portland is $160,000, the cost in Denver is $188,000. "Sprawl is not delivering low-cost housing," says Robert Liberty, executive director of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Oregon. "Increased land supply simply increases the profits for developers."

Growth-management legislation might be flexible enough to address many critics' concerns, but supporters of the constitutional amendment say they've reached a legislative dead end: Last year, the Colorado Legislature considered 24 growth-management bills and only passed three. "We don't have much faith in their ability to act," says Elise Jones of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

Meanwhile, even some opponents say the Amendment 24 controversy may serve as a wake-up call in the statehouse. Jay Fetcher is solidly against the proposal, but he's hoping for a narrow defeat. "That would send a message that the legislature does have to deal with growth," he says. "Then we'd have a true debate."

You can contact ...

  • Coloradans for Responsible Growth (supporters of 24), 303/573-0621;
  • Coloradans for Responsible Reform (opposed to 24), 303/504-4405.