Md. way looks wise from Rockies; Limits: Coloradans, dismayed by the sprawl threatening once-pristine vistas, suggest Smart Growth-style legislation.


PALMER LAKE, Colo. - The red sandstone cliff to the north of Red Ranch Road looms over the valley in stark, rugged majesty. Pillars of stone, carved by the wind into strange, compelling shapes, rise from the foothills.

The scene could be the backdrop of a Western movie if it weren't for all the subdivisions crawling up the slopes of the Front Range.

This is not John Denver's Colorado. This is sprawl, Westernstyle, unchecked development that spreads into regions of extraordinary natural beauty and meager water supplies.

It is a trend that many Coloradans believe has spun out of control, threatening the lifestyle that made the state one of the fastest growing in the nation.

Colorado, whose 4 million population is expected to grow to 5.5 million in 20 years, has no significant statewide growth strategy.

"The heritage of Colorado is being raped by the developers," says state Sen. Bryan Sullivant, who has emerged as the state's leading proponent of growth controls. "There is no leadership in Colorado anywhere to mitigate the damage of irresponsible growth."

The problems being spawned by unplanned growth are so serious that residents of Colorado -- and of other conservative Western states -- are taking a serious look at Eastern-style solutions such as Maryland's Smart Growth program.

Proponents of controlled growth were bolstered this month when the Colorado Forum, a group representing some of the state's largest corporations, warned that sprawl was threatening their ability to do business.

Sullivant, a moderate Republican from Breckenridge, a ski-resort town, says the forum's stand marks a significant change in the growth debate.

"Business wants predictability. Business needs good people who want to live in a quality-of-life environment," he says.

The state's legislature, dominated by conservative Republicans and heavily influenced by highway contractors and ranchers, has squelched any moves toward state-imposed growth controls. But the tide might be shifting as residents such as Vern Britt of Palmer Lake absorb the impact sprawl is having on their lives.

Palmer Lake and nearby Monument could be described as the epicenter of Colorado's sprawl-quake. They lie along Interstate 25 between Denver and Colorado Springs, the state's second-largest city, in a corridor that is the scene of some of the state's most explosive growth.

Ten years ago, Britt, 69, could look across the lake below her hillside town and see nothing but ranch land. Now the landscape is dotted with luxury houses as far as the eye can see on both sides of the interstate.

"You can't believe the growth," Britt says. She expects her local taxes to go "up, up, up" because the district needs a new high school and a middle school. And the traffic on I-25, two lanes in each direction with a Wild West speed limit of 75, is "dreadful."

Compounding her concern is the question of water. She sees a golf course across from her family's old ranch -- now carved up into subdivisions -- and wonders where the water will come from to keep the fairways green.

"Someday, if we have a drought, I don't know what people are going to do for water," Britt says. She consoles herself with the thought that she'll be dead before conditions get too bad.

Britt's concerns are not unfounded. Over the next 10 years, Denver is projecting a water deficit of 110,000 acre-feet, and Colorado is facing a shortfall of 170,000 acre-feet.

The effects of sprawl are not limited to the Front Range, as the eastern ridge of the Rockies just west of Denver is known. Longtime residents of the I-25 corridor are fleeing congestion by moving over the mountains to the Western Slope, bringing a milder version of sprawl to small towns such as Deckers, Westcreek and Guffey.

Along scenic Route 24 west from Colorado Springs are sign after sign for subdivisions with views of Pikes Peak. On the Western Slope area, encompassing many famous ski resorts, population growth is expected to reach 74 percent over the next 20 years.

Bill Soux, who operates an antiques store in Guffey, has a message for the people moving into the subdivisions outside the tiny town: "Go home. Go back to where you came from and leave us alone."

Soux's complaints about the newcomers are many. They move into a new subdivision off a gravel road and promptly demand that the county pave it at taxpayers' expense. They want him to take sides in their petty disputes with neighbors. And they insist on adorning their houses with high-wattage security lights.

"How are you going to see the stars?" Soux laments.

Sullivant and others are seeking ways to put a leash on the growth that so annoys Soux and other longtime residents.

This year, conservative Republican senators squelched Sullivant's proposed Responsible Growth Act, a bill that would have required localities to adopt growth plans and to abide by them. But the issue refuses to go away.

Over the summer, Sullivant has chaired a task force on managing growth, which recommended a series of measures that he plans to introduce in the 2000 session of the state legislature.

Some of the proposals are modeled on the Smart Growth legislation adopted in Maryland two years ago with the strong backing of Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The Maryland law uses the power of the state budget to channel infrastructure into growth areas designated by local jurisdictions.

Sullivant says he prefers the Maryland model to more restrictive measures adopted in Oregon and Washington state because "it seems to be more geared toward creating solutions at the local level." He's also pushing a Rural Legacy program -- the same name used in Maryland -- to use state money to buy development rights from farmers and ranchers.

The measures could face a hostile reception in the legislature. It doesn't help that their sponsor is a sophisticated Harvard graduate whose comments sometimes rankle the right wing of his party, for instance his contention that he has the support of "thinking Republicans."

Republican Gov. Bill Owens has kept his distance from the growth debate, preferring to push his $3 billion highway-construction program as the remedy for congestion.

Sullivant warns that "we can't pave our way out of this problem." He notes estimates that I-25, being widened to three lanes each way, will reach capacity again five years after the project is complete.

Smart Growth activists are warning that if GOP legislators turn a deaf ear to complaints about sprawl, they will use the initiative process to advance an even stronger version of growth control in next year's election.

Sullivant thinks they could win.

"People want to take their Colorado back," he says.

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