Monday, August 15, 2016

The Independence Development Questions

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have no doubt heard of the proposed large housing project north of County Rd.158 known currently as Independence.  It was formerly known as the Bandera development.  The new set of Denver developers are registered as Craft Companies, LLC.  They are proposing a two part project (Independence West and Independence East) which will include 920 homes. The original project, Bandera, was approved early in 2009.  The project never got off the ground and sat undeveloped ever since.  

It is my opinion that this project should be required to start over from scratch for a myriad of reasons which will be addressed later in this posting.  The developer has a different view and  wants the people who live in established developments that are adjacent to this Elbert County project to calm down and listen to all of the wonderful reasons why Independence is going to make all of their lives just a little bit better.  

Make no mistake about it; we should all listen very carefully to the representatives of Craft Companies, LLC.  We should also be acutely aware of all of the players involved in this project.  We should recognize that there will be impacts both positive and negative that will arise. We need to listen to both sides of this story so that we are prepared to make our voices heard regarding the direction this high density Elbert County housing project takes in the immediate future.

I begin with one undeniable fact: 98% of the residents in Elbert County live with a well for domestic use and a septic field. Our county has basically no water infrastructure on which any of us can rely. When you move here, that is the first thing you must accept. You have no other option.  If the water levels in your well significantly drop, you are in trouble. You cannot live here without water.  You can’t even sell your house without a viable source of fresh water.  You must drill deeper and that is a giant expense. Even then, there will be continued pressure on the aquifers as they try and meet the requirements of new development.

Within a stone’s throw to the west of the Independence development is Douglas County.  In an article published by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, entitled Denver Basin Aquifers in Decline

they outline the difficulties that the residents living in areas south of Highlands Ranch are experiencing today, “…but the situation is very different for areas in Douglas County where high volume pumping from the Arapahoe aquifer has caused dramatic declines. In some areas, 40 feet drops per year have been recorded and it is anticipated well flow rates will diminish during the next decade.”  

Folks, Douglas County is our next door neighbor.  The water situation, while bad in 2009, was nowhere near as dire as it is today in 2016. It only seems reasonable that we require a new study on just how the surrounding residents will be impacted by 920 new homes.  Currently, it is my understanding that the developers will be allocating 1/3 acre foot of water annually  to each new home.  In contrast, the rules in the remainder of Elbert County say that each home is entitled to 1 acre foot of water per 40 acre parcel (See my article One third of an acre foot of water is not very much per household.  It does mean that at a minimum, the 1,100 acres of land on which the proposed development will sit will be pumping over 300 acre feet of water annually out of the underlying aquifer. Now tell me again why neighbors should not be worried.

I also would be remiss if I did not mention that the Denver Bedrock Aquifers are designated as a “not nontributary water resource.”  In layman terms this means that the aquifers cannot recharge themselves  unless we wait several thousand years, and it also means that the state gives you almost no legal recourse if your well runs dry.  Colorado regards the water as a finite resource.  It is the risk that 98% of Elbert homeowners take which makes this development even more of a candidate for further and stringent review.

The article Denver Basin Aquifers in Decline discusses how Douglas County residents are having to pick up the tab for switching over from the aquifers to renewable water resources where water is stored in reservoirs, “Among Castle Rock's options—buying river water from Sterling, 150 miles to the north and east; drawing it from the Arkansas River; forming a partnership with East Cherry Creek; or buying into Denver Water's Green Mountain pumpback plan—each scenario is estimated to cost around $300 million.”  When you see plans like this, you have to understand that water is where the money is.  When these plans are thrown around, the same old faces keep showing up.  There is always talk of water districts and it generally will be explained by the likes of Attorney Diane Miller, Karl Nyquist's attorney who is a water expert. Or how about former Elbert County Commissioner Kurt Schlegel who served on a water district with water guru, Attorney Robert Lembke while making decisions on your Elbert County water future without ever once offering to recuse himself.  Did I mention that Diane Miller was in attendance at the presentation by developers with Craft Companies, LLC during a meeting at Pinecrest Community Church on Aug. 1, 2016? (Ms. Miller was there as the attorney representing the water district that will be servicing the Independence development.)   Probably just a freak coincidence, or not.  Call me skeptical…

Let’s move away from the water and discuss the Costs of Community Services (COCS) for a moment.  Any developer worth his salt should be prepared to talk about the amount of money a new home brings into the county coffers in terms of property taxes.  That money should be used by the county to improve roads, provide schools, fire and police protection, just to mention a few.  Here is a short study by the University of Illinois Extension Services on the topic: In this article the author points out that every new community needs to be analyzed for its fiscal impact on the surrounding area.  While everyone wishes and hopes that these new houses will generate much needed revenues to improve the existing surroundings, the truth is that some houses never even come close to generating enough property tax to pay their way.  From the get-go, many developments pose a burden on existing resources and wreak havoc on fragile county budgets.  

Can we honestly go forward without first doing a current COCS Analysis?  It would be pure folly without a complete reboot of this project. Is there anyone reading this who has not heard about our budgetary woes in Elbert County? 

The next iteration of the Elbert County BOCC needs to proceed with this project using the utmost caution.  Questions must be answered.  Where will the water come from if the aquifers cannot provide adequate flow?  What is the impact on existing roadways?  Will these houses generate a desirable tax base that sustains the new residents? What responsibility does the county owe to its current residents over those who do not yet live here?  What are the buildout requirements for the developer so that we know they are a serious and responsible partners with our county?  Where are the jobs for these new homeowners? Does this community provide compatible commercial development?  Have the Open Space requirements changed since this was the Bandera project?  And exactly what happens to the water pipelines that will be put in place for Independence West and East if the project tanks?  

I believe that IF this development is viable and able to improve Elbert County, then it should be built.  But I also believe that there are some serious red flags. If it is not built to the highest standards with all of the aforementioned questions answered to the satisfaction of the residents of the surrounding communities, then it should go away. 

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