The issue of growth and development is a hot topic in Elbert County, and at the community meeting regarding the Serenity Pointe subdivision on Sept. 20, residents weren’t shy about asking questions and sharing opinions.
Serenity Pointe is slated to be built off Singing Hills Road and will include 542 to 580 homes on 370 acres. About 40 people attended the meeting, many of whom were neighboring landowners.
Lisanne Hewell, of Smart Growth for Elizabeth, said it was the fifth development meeting she’s been to. Hewell says she is not anti-growth but feels developments like Serenity Pointe are “ruining our way of life.” She emphasized that Elbert County is rural. “We don’t want city lights, city noise, city pollution.”
Hewell feels like the commissioners aren’t listening and developers aren’t invested in the community. “You don’t live out here, you build and then you leave,” she said.
Another member of Smart Growth for Elizabeth, Cindy Angers, joined because she felt the current developments have been unwise. She recently supported efforts to stop the Elizabeth West development from proceeding as part of the Town of Elizabeth. “Elizabeth West was too high-density, too vast and sprawling,” she said. “It’s at the entrance to Elizabeth, that’s the first thing people will see.”
Including Serenity Pointe, there are over 8,000 homes at various stages in the Elbert County Community Project Pipeline. After pre-application, the developers move towards the formal application and public hearing stages of the process, as per county requirements. The large, yellow signs notifying residents of upcoming meetings are a required part of this process.
Other developments include Pine Ridge Estates (formerly called Elizabeth West), Elbert County East & Elbert County West, Moorestead (across from Sun Country on County Road 29), Longview Estates and additional homes in the Independence and Spring Valley subdivisions.
Numerous people in Elbert County feel that growth is happening too quickly and without adequate oversight. Residents are worried about high-density developments plopped next to rural acreages, lack of infrastructure, and the availability of water.
County Commissioner Chris Richardson said many of the current developments were approved decades ago. “The new Gold Creek Subdivision … and the Independence Subdivision … were both approved prior to the 2008/10 housing bust. Spring Valley … was initially approved in 2000.” Richardson added this is often a slow process and that “projects in the pipeline do not anticipate full build-out of 30 years or more.”
At the Serenity Pointe meeting, a homeowner expressed frustration that townhomes were planned right next to her property. In the same meeting, resident Brenda Dyche asked, “Why can’t we have bigger lots with less homes?” It’s a common refrain for residents concerned about growth. As Dyche sees it, the “high-density home garbage” doesn’t fit in Elbert County.
To ensure that developments similar in size and density were close to one another and to provide a sense of continuity, Elbert County formerly had an adjacency rule. The 2006 Elbert County Master Plan phrased part of the rule this way, “All new, legally created, platted divisions of land, creating lots of less than 35 acres in size, must be adjacent to existing, similar size or smaller parcels.”
At the Oct. 14, 2009 Board of County Commissioners’ meeting, the adjacency rule was replaced with “design standards’’ to allow for more flexibility.
Marc Dettenrieder, Elbert County’s director of Community and Economic Development, says that adjacency “can lead to rural sprawl, whereby all subdivisions would be in a cluster similar to what is found in urban/suburban areas. From a geological standpoint, more specifically water, if all growth takes place in one concentrated area, then you lose the opportunity to disperse aquifer consumption.”
Dettenrieder said that adjacency can happen organically and four of the major applications in the pipeline are “naturally adjacent to existing subdivisions.”
Infrastructure in spotlight
Debbie Ullom, a longtime Kiowa resident and local real estate broker, is concerned about whether or not new developments are built planning for the long-term infrastructure needs of the area. These include services like roads, road maintenance, traffic mitigation, schools, emergency services, renewable water sources, etc.
The Elbert County East and Elbert County West subdivisions will add thousands of homes in an area that is miles from the nearest services. They will not be part of any existing municipality and won’t, Ullom says, “provide what the schools need, the fire department needs, etc.”
In regards to infrastructure, developers do have to contribute in some way. Jim Marshall, the developer of Spring Valley and Pine Ridge Estates, created County Road 178. Originally, the agreement was to pave some 16 miles of roads to and from Spring Valley. In Pine Ridge Estates, Marshall has also recently reduced the number of homes planned and increased the lot size.
Tim Craft, the developer of Independence and Elbert County East & West, will extend Delbert Road from Singing Hills Road to County Road 158 and repave it from the Douglas County line to County Road 13. In regards to Independence, Commissioner Richardson noted that Craft has “taken on more infrastructure requirements than were initially required.”
Another major community concern is whether or not Elbert County has the water available to support development and the subsequent population influx. In a Healthy Communities Update, Elbert County Public Health Department referenced how Elbert County has recently experienced “intermittent disruptions” to water supply in part due to “depleted water supplies.”
In a Denver Post article from December 2022, Richardson said Elbert County imposed the 300-year rule 20 years ago after wells near Elizabeth began to dry up. “Water has always been a high priority out here,” he was quoted as saying.
The 300-year rule requires developers to provide documentation about their water sources and a letter from the Colorado Division of Water Resources that vouch for the supply and guarantee that it is adequate for three centuries.
Plan set to wrap up soon
The October 2023 Elbert County Connection described a follow-up study to the 2018 Rural Water Supply Study to update the county’s Water Master Plan, scheduled to be completed this December. It says the county wants to “ensure we are taking steps necessary to ensure new development does not impact current residents, and enact policy that assures our water independence.”
Who conducts studies like this is also a matter of contention. Angers mentioned that the developer for Pine Ridge Estates commissioned their own water study which she feels is a conflict of interest.
The county has many rules and regulations in place to help guide developers and ensure that the growth reflects the needs and desires of county residents. Some community members feel that existing regulations don’t meet the needs of the county and that they aren’t consistently enforced. As Hewell illustrated at the Serenity Pointe meeting, not all residents trust the county commissioners.
There are also concerns that some of the guiding documents used to inform those existing regulations are outdated. The oldest appears to be the West Elbert County Transportation Master Plan, which is from 2008 but is intended to address transportation needs through 2030.
Dettenrieder said that county regulations were rewritten in 2020 and that, “Updates are made as needed based on public concerns, while ensuring processes remain stable and decisions do not become arbitrary.” He added that the county is planning to do a Comprehensive Plan update in 2024.
When asked if commissioners hold developers to all county requirements, Commissioner Richardson said that “The county does require material compliance with all county policies by all developers. This is part of the reason it can take many years from the time a project is first proposed until any final approvals are granted.”
If a developer fulfills all the county stipulations, the development moves forward. Ullom says “developers are only doing what is allowed,” and doesn’t fault them for that. The solution would ultimately be to change rules and regulations.
Some favor compromise
Not everyone in Elbert County is against the new developments. Dan Rosales, a director for Elbert County Partnership, wants “what will work for the people coming in and for the people who have lived here for 100 years.” The Elbert County Partnership is a nonprofit focused on the betterment of all residents of Elbert County.
Rosales believes that residents on both sides of this issue need to come together and talk to reach a compromise. He feels it’s not realistic to keep people from moving to Elbert County but doesn’t want Elizabeth to become another Parker, with taller buildings and “out of control” developments.
As part of his work on the 2018 County Comprehensive Plan, Rosales spoke to people living in Independence, Gold Creek and Spring Valley. He found that 50-60% are people who grew up here but were forced to leave due to lack of work and affordable places to live. Rosales said this lack of housing and services in Elbert County forces people to take their money elsewhere. In his opinion, money needs to stay local and the county needs affordable housing for police officers, firefighters, teachers and those in the service industry.
When it comes down to it, Rosales believes we “shouldn’t tell people where to live or how to live. Some people want to live in luxury homes, some want one-eighth of an acre, some want 1,000 acres. Why should anyone tell someone how to live in Elbert County?”
Commissioner Richardson acknowledged the need for more diverse housing and pointed to the Elbert County Housing Study 2022 which “identified a need for approximately 3,000 homes over the next decade and identified price points that would make these homes affordable for teachers, firefighters, and others in our local workforce. Like most of Colorado, affordable housing is elusive. This is a need we continue to highlight as projects are proposed.”
Proponents of slower growth point out that the number of homes in the pipeline is more than the projected need and that they aren’t very affordable. The housing study lists the average price for newer homes at about $612,000 and $964,000 for homes on acreage.
At the July 19 Town Hall meeting, Ullom requested a moratorium on all developments and land use applications within Elbert County until concerns could be addressed, documents updated, and better oversight enforced. Elbert County commissioners previously voted for a one-year moratorium on new housing developments in 2000.
Ullom and other concerned citizens believe Elbert County could benefit from a closer look at the effects of development on things like traffic, water, schools, emergency services, and even quality of life before any more large developments can move forward.
Dettenrieder explained why the county commissioners don’t think a moratorium is necessary.
“Moratoriums are generally limited in scope so that specific regulations in need of updating can be completed, and once updated, the moratorium must be lifted,” he said. “In our case, we have kept our Zoning and Subdivision Regulations up to date in addition to our Transportation Master Plan, Comprehensive Plan, and Capital Improvement Plan. Therefore, a moratorium for purposes of a major overhaul isn’t present.”
He added that, “while several citizens have raised the subject of a moratorium, in a county of 27,000 residents, not everyone will ever agree on every issue. Growth and development are certainly one of those issues.”
If people aren’t happy with the way development is proceeding around the county, Ullom says residents need to get involved and become familiar with the process, even if it’s overwhelming or sometimes feels futile.
“It’s our responsibility as a community to make sure that the rules are followed, and if we don’t like the rules that are there, then we need to step up and ask for them to be changed. Serve on the board, serve on the planning commission, go to their meetings.”
Elbert County Planning Commission and County Commissioner meetings are held in Kiowa, usually at 215 Comanche Street. The calendar is available at: https://www.elbertcounty-co.gov/calendar.aspx?CID=23,14
Public notices about developments around Elbert County are published weekly, required by state statute, in Ranchland News.