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Independence development gets OK from Elbert County commissioners

Up to 920 homes may be built over coming years in area between Elizabeth and Parker

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After 12 hours of public hearings that spanned three evenings and concluded on Sept. 7, the application for the housing development known as Independence in Elbert County was unanimously approved by the three-member Board of County Commissioners.

“We are especially pleased that it was an unanimous decision by the BOCC,” said developer Tim Craft of Craft Companies.

Independence will be located at Hilltop Road/County Road 158 and County Road 5 and will cover 1,012 acres, including a minimum 420 acres of open space.

“Ideally, we hope to break ground in the next 45 days,” Craft said.

“Improvements on the land should take about a year,” with the larger piece of that time devoted to construction of the water reuse and recycling facility within the development, Craft said.

More than 200 people were in attendance for the first evening of the hearings, where two-thirds of the citizens who stood to speak during public comment were opposed to the project.

Many of the opponents belonged to a group called Stop Over-Development (SOD) and wore T-shirts with the SOD logo on them.

Among the issues brought up by citizens were concerns about water being exported from the area, whether the new population would truly bring commerce to the area or to nearby Parker, the potential odor from the water treatment facility, the number of special districts, traffic and density of the housing.

“I wish the number of people who had attended the first night were there at the second night, where rebuttals were given to answer their concerns,” said Commissioner Chris Richardson after the vote to approve the Independence applications.

Water issues

Water supply was one of the biggest concerns and was brought up repeatedly by residents attending the first night of the hearing.

Craft emphasized that economical land use by the “clustered density program” uses 25 percent of the water of a small acreage lot. A small acreage would be 1.5 to 2 acres.

The point was also made that a recent study done by Forsgren Associates determined that Elbert County has at least a 300-year water supply beneath it.

In addition to water supply, the concern was raised about odor coming from the treatment plant.

“It's waste water, thus there's going to be an odor,” said water and sanitation consultant to Craft Companies David Takeda.

Takeda is one of two engineers designing the water reuse and recycling facility, which is a class three — the highest rating possible — and the first of its kind in the state.

“The worst part of it is indoors,” where the solids are contained, Takeda said.

“It's like Parker's water system except smaller,” said Takeda, “and it's nicer looking than I originally anticipated.”

Traffic concerns

One benefit of the development to the county is that “roads will be improved or constructed by Craft Companies, not on the county's dime,” said Commissioner Danny Willcox.

Craft Companies will be responsible for the improvements and construction of 2 1/2 miles of county road by the time the second phase of development is one-fourth of the way complete.

Independence is slated to have at least four main phases.

Ultimately, property taxes from the homes in Independence will provide the revenue for the road maintenance in that area.

One major issue for the commissioners was the initial plan for just one entrance into the development to service the large community of homes.

To address this concern, Craft Companies agreed to add a temporary secondary entrance during the building phase for fire protection.

In addition, a permanent secondary entrance will be constructed sooner than originally planned, connecting Delbert Road to Singing Hills.

To ensure its timeliness, the subdivision improvement agreement (SIA) now states that prior to obtaining building permit 371, Craft Companies must have the road completed.

“At that point there will be two entrances, one off County Road 5 and one off Delbert Road at the north,” Willcox said.

Special districts

Citizens expressed concerns over the six metro districts that would be established to operate Independence, fearing they would enable Independence to have too much control within the county.

Special district counsel for Craft Companies Diane Miller spoke to the commissioners about the creation of the six metropolitan districts for the development, saying that these districts, which act as local governments, “are the most common local government in Colorado.”

There are now 2,500 of them in the state, she said.

Craft presented a slide illustrating the point that numerous developments in the area utilize several metro districts each for their operations.

“Districts are job creators,” Craft explained, saying there would be 500 permanent jobs created at build-out.

Commissioner Grant Thayer pointed to an issue with the material modification to the service plans, since it would have enabled the developer to potentially alter the original boundaries of the districts and serve other areas around the development.

Thayer said the boundaries of the districts should be firmly established in advance and not subject to change.

Miller explained their reasoning for the material modification to the service plans, saying: “There is some concern that neighbors in the future will need some water and service.”

Craft also said that Elbert County's Department of Community and Development Services had encouraged the material modification to the service plans.

It was a sticking point for the commissioners.

“You have to understand the psychology of our community,” Thayer said to Miller and Craft. “There is great fear that we'll be merged with another metro district or export water.

“If you want to step outside the metro district, if you want to do it without coming to us first, I'm afraid — I'm not afraid — I'm pretty sure you'll have trouble,” Thayer said as the room erupted with applause.

After consulting with his legal team during a recess at the second meeting, Craft made the concession to meet the request of the commissioners.

“By placing borders around the metro districts, they can't do anything with any of their metro districts' infrastructure outside of their borders without a notice to public hearing and approval by the BOCC,” Thayer later said.

In addition, any request for shared services must be initiated by an entity other than Independence.

Density questions

According to the research from the state demographer presented by Tim Craft, Elbert County needs 600 homes per year to manage its projected growth.

“The information from the state demographer in the most recent study from the 2008 western county transportation plan has been historically accurate,” Thayer said in an interview after the vote.

The study predicts that by the year 2030 the county will need an additional 9,000 homes.

Lawyer Joe Kinlaw, representing Jackie Tugwell and Shelly Rodie, both from Elizabeth, spoke to the commissioners posing what he believed was a direct breach of zoning regulations, stating that some of the lots planned by Craft Companies were 5,000 square feet and that Elbert County requires a minimum of 7,000 square feet per lot.

Land-use attorney David Foster, representing Craft Companies, rebutted: “The minimum lot size made clear in the PUD” indicates that “there would be a lot of lot sizes … Just because there are smaller lots doesn't mean you get to build more lots.

“There are 920 lots, and zoning regulates 920 units,” Foster said.

Craft also spoke to the matter.

“Smart growth typically occurs through master plans, and although clustered homes look different than a typical Elbert County community, they use less water, less land, and pay their own way while reserving more open space,” Craft said.

If 920 homes were each set on 25 acres, they would require revenue for the homes to cover 100 miles of roads, which is far less cost- and resource-efficient, Craft said.

Fiscal impact

Independence “more than pays its own way,” said Craft, by generating surplus revenue for the county with a positive $250,000 from the estimated 7.2 percent assessment rates on the properties.

There would also be “considerable additional revenue from a variety of additional fees,” with a total annual net benefit $800,000, Craft said.

Although Elizabeth resident and business owner Shawn Strain stood in support of the population increase from the development, several opponents argued that the newcomers to the community would not be any more likely to shop in Elizabeth and Kiowa than current residents, many of whom shop in Parker.

The new development will be “as close to Parker as it is to Elizabeth,” said Elizabeth resident Jennie Aquino.

Superintendent Douglas Bissonette spoke in favor of the development, saying he anticipated a positive impact on area schools, increasing revenue and with an outcome that will “better utilize our current buildings that are under capacity.”

Bissonette also said that the development could benefit teachers in need of affordable housing.

With minimum home prices in the low $300,000s, the affordability of the costs of the future homes were challenged by citizens to the board of commissioners and Craft Companies.

Craft responded with research from Zillow indicating that only five homes in the same area were cheaper than the lowest-priced homes would be in Independence, and all five were either dilapidated or very old and in need of repair.

Commissioners give green light

In the closing moments of the final meeting, the commissioners each took a turn explaining their reasoning for the vote they were about to make.

“I've spend more time with this box of material than I have with my family,” said Richardson as he pointed to the pile of papers and booklets about the project.

Although the group of citizens opposing the project was very vocal, “it equates to less than 1 percent of the folks that live in this county,” he said.

“It's not going to change the nature of our county. New York City doesn't define the United States, and Denver doesn't define Colorado.”

Thayer gave his reasons in a list of pros and cons, which included the positive of open space.

“What we have now isn't truly open space, it's really five-acre corrals,” Thayer said.

“If we take 920 homes without open space, give them five-acre lots, that covers 15 square miles,” said Thayer. “Think about that.”

“The idea of open space available to the public is appealing to me.”

Thayer also said the traffic concerned him, but adding the additional second permanent entrance and using a second temporary entrance gave him enough peace of mind to vote yes.

Willcox opened his remarks with a story from personal experience.

“I got a lot of emails saying: `How would you like it?'” he said.

“I moved here 20 years ago and the guy behind me who owned 25 acres didn't like it. A PUD was approved near my house and the developer came and talked to the whole neighborhood, and most people didn't like it.

“So I do understand the feeling, I do,” Willcox said.

Willcox also pointed to the water study that indicated a long-term supply beneath the county, which he cited as 400 years and said “really put my mind at ease.”

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