From the moment man first pounded stakes into the ground and declared that piece of property his, land disputes, and the right to use private property for whatever the landowner wanted, have been a …
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From the moment man first pounded stakes into the ground and declared that piece of property his, land disputes, and the right to use private property for whatever the landowner wanted, have been a point of contention between landowners and neighbors.
As the population grew and more people became landowners, communities emerged, and eventually oversight agencies were born within towns, cities and counties, with elected officials tasked with the difficult decisions of balancing landowners' rights with growth and development.
Today, Elbert County, which encompasses nearly 2,000 square miles on the Great Plains southeast of Denver, is on the cusp of development that many in the county believe will be beneficial, while others believe it will destroy the rural county with unchecked development.
At the center of the debate is the proposed Economic Development Zone overlay, a plan initiated by the Elbert County Board of Commissioners to allow zoning changes to land along specific corridors in the county, including spots along Highway 86 and U.S. 24. Under the EDZ, which the commissioners scheduled for an Aug. 8 vote, land within a half-mile of the centerline of EDZ corridors would be rezoned from agricultural to commercial, residential or industrial. Hotels, multi-family housing, a college or university and self-storage facilities would be just a few of the more than 40 uses allowed by right to be built.
According to Elbert County Manager Sam Albrecht, citizens have asked for more growth and jobs within the county.
“In the past, through a citizen engagement survey, citizens have said that Elbert County needs to focus on bringing hew jobs into the county,” said Albrecht. “We think the EDZ will be a piece of that process. In the past it's taken over a year to get zoning and a site plan approved before they're ready to break ground. Because of that timeline and cost associated with rezoning requirements, they're going to other counties.”
The EDZ would eliminate the need for landowners to have their land rezoned, and although they would still have to submit site plans for approval, the process would include administrative approval only, omitting public hearings.
“What this also does, is actually lets property owners in EDZ corridors have choices,” said Albrecht. “Say a guy has 80 acres and it's zoned agriculture. He can stay agriculture as long as he wants to. Say another guy comes in and buys 80 acres and it's zoned agricultural, he doesn't have to go through rezoning.”
Property rights touted
Albrecht said the county approaches land development from the standpoint of property rights.
“If a landowner wants to bring in a business from the approved list, we let them,” said Albrecht.
The current EDZ includes 26,000 acres within Elbert County, but excludes properties located within Elizabeth, Kiowa and Simla.
Angela Ternus, mayor pro tem of Elizabeth, said nobody disputes the inevitable growth of the county, but she feels the EDZ will not bring the kind of quality growth residents want to see.
“If you make it easy enough and cheap enough you'll get development,” said Ternus. “But we want good, quality development. And with the EDZ there will be no say what will be built where, as long as it's on the approved list.”
The EDZ poses a problem in the future growth and planning for Elizabeth, according to Ternus, because there will be no public hearing involved and no planning between adjoining properties for the land outside town subject to the EDZ.
“Open space and trails are a big part of our rural community,” said Ternus. “With the EDZ you could have a trail start on one piece of property, but have to end on the next property. We could have miles of RV storage facilities, or self-storage facilities, and neither of those is attractive, yet neighbors would have no say in how the land around them is built out. There's no consistency.”
Grace Erickson, community development director with the Town of Elizabeth, said the EDZ was initiated by Elbert County commissioners, and they have been unsympathetic to the concerns of people from Elizabeth. In an effort to stop the EDZ from being approved, the Town of Elizabeth compiled a fact sheet citing concerns, and distributed it through press releases, the town website, Facebook and handouts.
“We have been looking at other alternatives for development,” said Erickson. “By state statute we are responsible for a three-mile radius of our town limits when planning for water, roads and specific land use. We just received funding to do an updated comprehensive plan, and that's going to be hard to do when we don't know what's going to be built along these corridors.”
Annexation is possibility
According to Albrecht, the county has an intergovernmental agreement with Elizabeth, and the town has the opportunity to attempt to try to annex any land within the three-mile zone surrounding town limits, and he said fears that the EDZ will interfere with their master plan are unfounded.
“We have an IGA with Elizabeth. If somebody walked in right now and wanted to build on property one mile from Elizabeth, the first thing we would do is notify the town and give them the opportunity to meet with the property owner and talk about annexation into the town.”
Megan Vasquez, mayor of Elizabeth, said she feels the county commissioners are acting too quickly, and not listening to their concerns.
“As a town we are trying to stay focused on our strategic plan. We have a vision, and the county could rupture our plan,” said Vasquez. “We have to look out for the town. The county has said they would take (the three-mile radius around Elizabeth) out of the EDZ for one year, but won't consider taking us out of the plan completely.”
Ternus said she hoped the commissioners would reconsider the EDZ approval.
“I believe they need to slow this down,” said Ternus. “They need to listen to the objections and consider long-term ramifications.
The planning commission recommended county commissioners approve the plan during the July 24 planning meeting.
“The commissioners will listen to public comment, look at documents and make up their own minds on how to vote,” said Albrecht, of the Aug. 8 meeting. “We just want new businesses in the county. We don't care if they're in town or the county, EDZ doesn't change that.”
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