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Colorado's likely fastest-growing county in years ahead has water atop its concerns

February 11, 2018 Updated: February 12, 2018 at 12:11 pm
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Signs in the area of the Independence Development near Elizabeth reflect the sentiments of locals who are concerned about losing their water. Tuesday, January 30, 2018. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Along Colorado Highway 86 between Franktown in Douglas County and Elizabeth in Elbert County, signs dot the road advertising for new homes - everything from high-end custom jobs to the more affordable.

The signs don't say that 75 percent of the people who live in Elbert County, population 25,231, are within 5 miles of the western border with Douglas County, a number that is likely to increase in the next few years.

One new development in particular has drawn the attention of longtime residents. Independence, in the northwest part of the county, is being planned for 920 new dwellings, among the largest in county history and potentially home to 3,000 residents.

What worries some is where those 920 homes and several thousand residents will get their water. Assurances from Elbert County commissioners that this isn't some kind of scheme to sell water to Douglas County isn't exactly easing those concerns.

That's based in part on problems with past commissioners that have cost the cash-poor county hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements and legal bills in the last few years. The lack of trust also stems from what some residents call a "take it or leave it" attitude by the current board that residents say ignores their concerns.

Changing times

The state demographer and state economists have estimated that Elbert County will be the fastest-growing county in the state for the next two decades.

When people think of growth in the south metro Denver area, Douglas County comes quickly to mind. Since 1970, it grew from just over 8,000 residents to more than 300,000, with the biggest uptick starting around 1990.

That pattern is true for Elbert County, too. It started 1990 with around 9,000 residents, and that more than doubled by 2010. Since then, the county has added another 6,000 residents.

Once Elbert County tops 50,000 - and that could happen in about 20 years - it's no longer considered a rural county by state standards.

The county's close proximity to Denver and the south suburbs makes it attractive for those who want a taste of the country life. The U.S. census pegs the average commute to work for Elbert County residents at 40 minutes.

All that growth could be great for county government coffers that have been short of funds for years. Voters in this primarily Republican district - it went 73 percent for Trump in 2016 - have rejected property tax increases that would put the county's finances on better footing, most recently in 2013.

But a group of county residents aren't exactly embracing the idea of what would be a massive housing development for Elbert County. They've filed suit, claiming the county commissioners exceeded their authority in approving the development. The claim is that commissioners pick and choose which zoning laws would apply and reauthorized a previously-stalled project that should have started over in the permitting process.

Some large custom built homes have been built in the idyllic area around Elizabeth, but much more growth is expected for the small town. Tuesday, January 30, 2018. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

Another of residents' concerns is just how a large influx of new residents would change the county. Several told Colorado Politics they moved to Elbert for the rural lifestyle, and fear the county will become another south metro bedroom community.

Water watchers concerned

There's also worry about how much water the development would need, and whether that water will truly stay in Elbert County.

The county is in what some residents call a "sweet spot." There are four major aquifers under the county: Dawson, Denver, Fox Hills and Arapahoe. No other county on the Front Range sits on all four. The Denver Basin, which includes the four aquifers, is the major water supply for the south metro Denver area, and reaches all the way to Colorado Springs to the south and Greeley to the north.

Virtually all of the water providers in the south metro area are looking for ways to save the rapidly diminishing water in the Denver Basin aquifers, which do not respect county lines. That's meant millions of dollars spent to find other water sources.

And Colorado history is replete with examples of water rights in rural eastern plains counties or those surrounding towns being sold to urban interests, which adds to the wariness of Elbert residents.

The Community Well that services the Coyote Hills Subdivision near Elizabeth is one of the wells that will be directly affected by the Independence Development. This well was identified on the Independence Water Study as being in the potentially affected range of impact. If the Coyote Hills well is negatively impacted it will force the residents to have to purchase water (via a water tap fee) from the Independence Development. (information according to Shelly Rodie) (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

Elbert County plans to tap the aquifer to satisfy its projected growth. Last year, a company hired by the county conducted a rural water supply study that would project water demands for the Independence project and another near Kiowa, the county seat, up to 2035 and 2050. Will Koger of Forsgren Associates told those gathered at a community forum that the two developments would require about 9,000 acre-feet per year by 2050, or about 3.2 billion gallons per year.

There are alternatives available, too, Koger said, noting that agricultural land that is developed for residential use will also provide water and the water rights that go with it to satisfy those developments.

That didn't sit well with some of those at the forum, who pointed out that tapping the aquifer means pumping nonrenewable groundwater, and that could affect wells, the primary source of water for just about everyone in Elbert County.

The county has little in the way of options, with little surface water available from streams or rivers, according to an April 2017 presentation from the state Division of Water Resources.

But the demand for aquifer water is low compared to the available supply, Koger told the audience, and the developments would tap less than 1 percent of what's available.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Independence project question whether the issue of water is about the development or if it's about selling water to next door Douglas County. They point to a map included in the Forsgren presentation that they said shows a proposed one-way pipeline that goes from the Independence site to Rueter-Hess Reservoir in Douglas County.

The development schematics includes a proposal for six special districts that would manage the water, which strikes Richard Brown and other concerned residents as odd. The six districts, according to a water and sanitation proposal developed for the county, would be contained within a small section of the development that would not include any homes. One district is an "overlay" that would control the rest.

The developer, Craft Companies, and its owner and board would be the only voters in those districts, according to the water and sanitation proposal.

John Dorman has lived in Elbert County since 2000, moving to Colorado from California after retiring as a lifer with the Navy. He believes the setup would allow the developer to provide services outside of the boundaries of the districts, and that could allow the developer to send water to Douglas County.

Shelly Rodie lives across the street from the Independence development site. She is concerned about losing the water in their community well to the homes at the site. Tuesday, January 30, 2018. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

Shelly Rodie lives across the street from the Independence site. She noted when the Elbert County commissioners approved the project last September, one commissioner, Grant Thayer, pointed out the special districts would charge higher mill levies - a form of property taxes - for water than in any other part of the county. "Buyer beware," Thayer said.

Meanwhile, Ron Redd, district manager for the Parker Water and Sanitation District, which manages Rueter-Hess, indicated the pipeline from Elbert County is a figment of someone's imagination. The map has caused controversy for his county, too, he said.

Parker Water has no plans to build the pipeline on the Forsgren map or, conversely, supply water to Elbert County, Redd said emphatically. As to the reverse, that Elbert County might want to sell its aquifer water to Douglas County, Redd put the kibosh on that, too, stating that the aquifers in Elbert County don't have the amount of water that would help supply his district.

He also pointed out that no one ever contacted Parker Water to discuss the pipeline before it showed up on the Forsgren map, and that he has asked the company to remove it from their development schematics.

County commissioners respond

County commissioners appear to regard the objections to the Independence project as irrelevant. Commissioner Chair Chris Richardson noted last September that less than 1 percent of the county's residents object to the proposal. That comment came after three days of hearings in which those who spoke out against the development outnumbered those who supported it by a 3-to-1 margin.

In a statement to Colorado Politics, Commissioner Danny Wilcox pointed to a September 2016 commissioner-written review of the Independence project, which pointed out the project has been approved by the county Planning Commission as well as the Board of County Commissioners. "During the hearings we made the developer change his plan to ensure that there could be no shipment of water outside of the county from this property," the review said.

"Furthermore," the review said, "any shipment of water to support any individual or entity outside of the property (but within the county) would have to be requested by those that would receive the water and can only be approved after a publicly noticed hearing so no changes could be made secretly in the future."

As to concerns that the development might tap into water that is going to existing wells, also an issue raised in the forum, the review said the wells would pull water primarily from the Denver and Arapahoe aquifers, not the Dawson aquifer that people with individual wells draw from. Usage of water from one aquifer will not impact the others, the review said.

As to why the development needs six special districts, the review said such a plan is common for large projects. The "overlay" district would function like an HOA. "In October of last year (2016), the courts formally approved the establishing of these districts and required TABOR elections were held in November." Those voting? The owner and board of Craft Companies, LLC.

Wilcox told Colorado Politics that a "small number of people" in the county who are very vocal have their own ideas about how things should be done. "We've looked at those ideas," Wilcox said, adding, the commissioners have to do what's best for everyone.

County residents point out the commissioners can change the rules on selling the water out of the county at any time, although at a September county commissioner hearing on Independence, Tim Craft of Craft Companies said the development would waive their rights to export water.

Craft did not return a request for comment.

Rural versus suburban

One other concern that came up in interviews with county residents, and that's how the county is changing from one that's always been rural to suburban, which is what happened in Douglas County. Some don't want that kind of change in Elbert.

On a community Facebook page, one resident, Troy Zulkowski, recently warned others about what an exploding population will mean for the county. "Now, we all know that our county is primarily a Republican county, that is a given. I don't think that our elected officials realize that by embracing all of this growth (Independence alone will add about 2,000 citizens of voting age), they are setting the stage for the Republican Party's demise in Elbert County."

Not far from Elizabeth, east of Castle Rock, new homes are being built on a massive scale.. Tuesday, January 30, 2018. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

Jill Duvall, one of the county's few Democrats - about 11 percent of the voting population - grew up in Washington state but moved to Elbert County more than two decades ago for the open spaces. Richard Brown has lived in the county since 2003; Susan Shick since 1998. All moved to the county for acres of land and the quiet rural life. All are opposed to the Independence development and most are part of that lawsuit, filed by Stop Overdevelopment of Elbert County.

It's not the only lawsuit or controversy involving the county commissioners, and that's led to an attitude among some of no confidence in the officials.

- In 2013, county commissioners held a town hall over a proposed ballot measure to increase the county's property taxes. The commissioners, in violation of state campaign finance law, presided over the meeting in which a county-hired consultant made the case for voters to approve the ballot measure. The involvement by the county commissioners implied a position on the ballot question, which constituted the violation. That led to a campaign finance complaint, two lawsuits and an ethics complaint with the state ethics commission that went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court. All told, the matter has now cost the county more than $321,000 in settlements and legal fees.

That ballot measure was overwhelmingly defeated.

- Earlier this month, the county settled with a former employee whose county computer had been "wiretapped" to find evidence of comments she'd made against then-County Commissioner Robert Rowland. According to Colorado District Court documents, more than 50,000 screenshots taken from Kyle Fenner's computer were obtained by the county commissioners.

- The county commissioners for the better part of two years were largely at war with each other. The two other commissioners - Kelly Dore and Larry Ross - were targeted by county employees in what was called a "Jerry Springer-style" commissioners meeting in November, 2015, in which county employees allied with Rowland, including the sheriff, called upon Dore and Ross to resign. Dore and Ross had sought the suspension of the county attorney, who was accused of working only with Rowland.

The legal fights haven't stopped. In addition to the Independence lawsuit, another challenges a more recent decision by the new county commissioners to purge county advisory boards. The commissioners decided that anyone who had filed a lawsuit against the county could not serve on the county's advisory boards.

Wilcox said the current commissioners are dealing with the problems left over from the previous board. All three of the commissioners came in around the same time, in 2016, and immediately recognized a need for the board to operate in a more respectful and professional manner and with an "open door" policy, he said. "We're trying to leave politics out of the equation."

As to the policy on board appointments, Wilcox said the commissioners lack policies in many areas. One of their projects has been to create them, given that the board had no written history, background information or criteria for how people got appointed to the advisory groups. "A lot of these boards are responsible for taxpayer dollars," Wilcox said. "Our responsibility is to protect the fiscal interest of the county."

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