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ARCHIVED  January 1, 1998

How do small towns handle growth?

Boom forces expansion of governments, services

Coping with massive growth can be tough enough for larger cities that have built-in infrastructure and a base of government departments and services, but how do small towns handle it when populations are doubling, tripling or more within an extremely short time span?
It˜s not easy.
Small communities and their citizens cope with massive developments by way of strategic annexations, comprehensive-plan overhauls, citizen surveys, hiring more city staff, petitions against further annexations and lawsuits.
Many small towns along the Northern Front Range, including Berthoud, Milliken, Eaton, Windsor, Johnstown, Erie Brighton, Frederick, Firestone and Dacono have taken one or all of these actions in the last five years.
Because residential development is moving along at a fast clip in Larimer and Weld counties, balancing residential and commercial development is one of the biggest headaches. U.S. Housing Markets recently ranked the Fort Collins-Loveland area ninth in the country in residential construction; Greeley ranked 18th. Small, nearby communities are seeing the benefit of proximity but worry about the potential fallout: Unchecked, residential growth can hamstring a town˜s ability to function.
"Every dollar in residential taxes costs $6 to maintain," said Tom Martinez, Johnstown mayor. "Business gives $6 in taxes and costs $1 to maintain." Since 1993, Johnstown has annexed enough land to build 900 homes.
While most small-town officials view residential development as an inferior tax generator for towns and cities compared with commercial development, requests to change zoning from commercial to residential are common. Some small cities, such as Brighton, cope with requests by saying "no."
"We˜ve had a lot of requests from property owners who say, ÔWe˜d like to build residential in places Brighton is zoned commercial,˜ " said John Bramble, Brighton city manager. "We˜ve told them to go back and look at if from a commercial perspective."
Many small cities use annexations to increase commercial acreage, hoping to attract the businesses that will provide jobs and help pay for city services after the residential rush ends. Land adjacent to heavily trafficked roads are highly prized for their potential to generate commercial revenue.
Milliken is looking forward to commercial development on 20 acres of recently annexed land near Colorado Highway 60, while Johnstown is expecting Interstate 25 to generate commercial revenue.
"The more property annexed off I-25, the more revenue sources," Martinez said, comparing today˜s highway to yesterday˜s railroad.
"Johnstown originally built around the railroad," he said. "Today˜s major source is the highway."
The I-25 frontage didn˜t come easy to Johnstown. The town˜s recent 120-acre annexation on the southwest side of I-25 and Colorado Highway 56 was contested by Berthoud, which lost a lawsuit over the annexation in November but plans to appeal.
Small communities are beefing up equipment and city staff. Johnstown˜s police department used second-hand cars from the state highway patrol. The town clerk, Diana Seeley, was a jack-of-all-trades because there was no town administrator. Police officers now get new wheels every year through a lease plan. Last June, Vern Haefele was added as town administrator.
Milliken is also adding staff. A city planner is expected to come on in 1998. Although the town will pay for the planner˜s benefits, they are looking for his or her salary to be provided by Bob and Ron Ehrlich, developers of a 480-acre piece of land on the east side of the town.
Brighton will add staff in each department up to 12 positions in 1998. Frederick added a full-time customer-service person and an electrical/building inspector.
A rash of comprehensive-plan overhauls is taking place. In anticipation of growth, most of the 10 small towns named above have worked on their comprehensive plan in the last five years.
Frederick spent $85,000 on its plan a year ago and now requires all developers to buy it for $75. The plan was reworked because of the growth, said town administrator Karen Borkowski.
"In 1993, we had 30 new homes built," she said. "By last year, it was 49 residences and six businesses. We˜ve annexed 1,375 acres in the last two years."
A smaller community can use post-office boxes, but Frederick has outgrown that delivery system. Individual homes and businesses should start receiving mail sometime in 1998.
Windsor is working on a comprehensive plan. The town, taking the prize for the most acres annexed of the 10 communities in the last five years — 5,500 — saw its population increase by almost 40 percent during that time. The town˜s comprehensive plan is expected to be complete sometime in 1998.
Windsor is further coping with growth by passing a tax on new construction. In November, the town passed a 3 percent use tax on new construction materials. Joe Plummer, Windsor˜s planning director, said the only way the tax is related to development is that the person building a new structure must pay a use tax on construction materials purchased outside the town.
The tax will add $2,250 to the cost of a $150,000 home and between $600 to $700 to the town˜s capital-improvement fund. It will allow town expenditures "that the town may not have been able to afford," Plummer said. Windsor is making sure that developers "pay for adequate infrastructure, and through the attraction of industrial/commercial businesses, avoid cost to residential property taxes," he said.
New construction will feed the capital-improvement fund in Firestone as well. Last year, the town started a fee that will increase in increments each year until it tops out at $5,000 per residential housing unit.
"The idea was that the developers could plan," for this charge, said Trudy Peterson, Firestone town clerk/administrator.
Anticipating growth, the town developed design specifications two years ago so that developers would "know our expectations," she said. The comprehensive plan anticipates a population of 2,815 by the year 2010 if the E-470 Highway is built out.
Growth puts a strain on city-provided amenities such as water, sewer and local roads. Heavier traffic due to growth has led to a $195,000 plan to widen Johnstown˜s main street, Parish Avenue. Construction is expected to begin in 1998.
In Brighton, additional internal road improvements and a new traffic signal on Bromley Lane are needed due to growth, Bramble said. Brighton also plans to bring on new wells in 1999.
Milliken is looking into how to expand its water system. Currently, the town buys water from Central Well Water Special District. Officials want to build a $1 million water-storage system (the annual town budget is only $2 million).
J.R. Schnelzer, town administrator, hopes that federal and state grants will pay for the new water-storage system. It˜s a chief worry, he said, because capacity is now only half of Milliken˜s projected need, which is based on an eventual population of 10,000.
Schnelzer is also looking at a rebate program through which developers will be compensated for putting in longer water lines, or adding more miles of road than they actually need.
"The second developer in the same area would rebate the difference," he said.
Citizen protest is probably the most visible way that citizens in these small communities cope with growth.
In Windsor, a slow-growth faction of the town amassed enough support to have a 3,000-acre annexation put on the ballot for a vote about a year ago. The annexation was voted in by 58 percent. A citizen˜s advisory group, with a few of the slow-growth proponents who petitioned for the ballot issue, has since formed and is helping town officials with the comprehensive plan.
In Eaton, the town voted in an ordinance that required all annexations be put before a public vote. City manager Gary Carston said that the idea came up after a member of the city board decided that the citizens should have had a say in the approval of a grocery store.
"I think people read the paper and had become afraid of what was happening in Fort Collins," Carston said, "afraid of change and growing too fast."
In November 1997, voters threw the ordinance out.

Boom forces expansion of governments, services

Coping with massive growth can be tough enough for larger cities that have built-in infrastructure and a base of government departments and services, but how do small towns handle it when populations are doubling, tripling or more within an extremely short time span?
It˜s not easy.
Small communities and their citizens cope with massive developments by way of strategic annexations, comprehensive-plan overhauls, citizen surveys, hiring more city staff, petitions against further annexations and lawsuits.
Many small towns along the Northern Front Range, including Berthoud, Milliken, Eaton, Windsor, Johnstown, Erie Brighton, Frederick, Firestone and Dacono have…

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