Opinion

SLOAN | A showdown over growth in Erie

Author: Kelly Sloan - March 28, 2018 - Updated: March 28, 2018

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Kelly Sloan

A municipal election in Erie would not generate much interest outside the town limits, were it not for the fact that everything that happens politically in Erie in the last couple of years seems to stir excitement. The reason, of course, it that the little municipality finds itself, by geographic accident, on the front lines of the battle within the state over economic growth.

In less than 20 years, the town has grown from a population of about 6,000 to 28,000 as Boulder’s suburbs gestate eastwards. Forecasts predict that by 2035 Erie’s population will be flirting with 40,000. Ironically, this growth has been driven by the City of Boulder’s anti-growth policies, which have restricted new home construction and the amount of land for development so that the average house now costs more than $1 million.

Now, for those who wish to live within striking distance of Boulder, but can’t afford the residential entry fee, Erie has been something of a sanctuary, offering new and recent construction at a much more affordable price. There exists, however, a faction within the town that seeks to implement the same sort of anti-growth polices that locked many of Erie residents out of Boulder; the message, it would seem, something along the lines of “what was good enough for them is no longer good enough for anyone else”

In next week’s municipal election, there is a slate of candidates – Jennifer Carroll for mayor, with John Ahrens, Adam Haid and Bill Gippe running for seats on the Erie Board of Trustees – whose platforms and statements are laced with anti-growth sentiment; much of it encrypted in euphemistic expressions like “quality growth over building expediency,” and “too big for our square footage,” punctuated with appeals to “slow residential growth.”

What they’re saying, of course, is that Erie ought to hit the brakes new home building, accelerate the expansion of open space, and try to emulate Boulder’s one-percent limit on growth as closely as possible. Should that cripple the town’s ability to attract much-needed retail and commercial development and better amenities, so be it.

The emergence of this slate is not exactly an act of local spontaneity – contentions over growth which have sprung up in places like Erie, Lakewood and Greenwood Village are all preparing the ground for a proposed statewide ballot measure this year that would impose Boulder’s one-percent growth mandate across the entire Denver Metropolitan Area.

Erie makes for a marvelous battleground in this fight, insomuch as it happens to straddle, both geographically and philosophically, a county line which may be the most clearly delineated political boundary this side of the 38th parallel – with liberal, Luddite, anti-development Boulder County on the west and conservative, pro-growth, energy-rich Weld County on the east.

The oil and gas issues which have framed public debate in Erie recently are symptomatic of a much more profound dispute: Will Erie continue to grow and develop its own identity, or lurch leftward in an attempt to court the condescending approval its neighbors in Boulder? Simply put, will the town be pro-growth and welcoming, or anti-growth and unwelcoming?

…for those who wish to live within striking distance of Boulder, but can’t afford the residential entry fee, Erie has been something of a sanctuary, offering new and recent construction at a much more affordable price. There exists, however, a faction within the town that seeks to implement the same sort of anti-growth polices that locked many of Erie residents out of Boulder…

The zeal among members of the anti-growth constituency is considerable and has raised serious concerns about the integrity of Erie’s election. Several news outlets, for instance, have reported on allegations of ballot rigging that favored the anti-growth slate, which led to the sudden resignation of the town’s top election official, an investigation from the Weld County district attorney, and a still-ongoing inquiry by the Town of Erie.

What initiated the concerns was the town’s non-partisan administrator, A.J. Krieger, asking questions about then-town clerk, Nancy Parker, and the execution of her election-related duties in late January. It seems Ms. Parker – a close personal friend with anti-growth mayoral candidate Jennifer Carroll, whose inimical views towards development are well known – suddenly moved up the process for randomly drawing candidate names for placement on the town’s April 3 ballot by more than a week, and with less than 24 hours’ notice, limiting the number of candidates and observers who could attend.

Furthermore, different sizes of paper were used in the name drawing, raising suspicions that the process was not random but intended to favor one side over the other. As it turned out, Carroll’s name was placed at the top of the ballot, ahead of her rival for the mayor’s job, Dan Woog.

The procedural irregularities prompted Krieger to investigate. In e-mails obtained by Complete Colorado’s Sherrie Peif, he wrote “changing published dates without explanations and short-circuiting debate open the Town up to criticism and erodes public trust.” Ms. Parker resigned within hours of these questions being asked.

“This is a sad episode for the Town,” Krieger wrote in a follow-up message to Erie officials. Before Parker quit, he had also learned of prior conversations between the town clerk and Carroll, a sitting trustee and candidate for mayor, about the 2018 election. “[W]e potentially have a situation that involves sitting trustees/future candidates discussing both the 2018 election and other candidates with the Town’s chief election official,” Krieger wrote. “I’m sure you will understand why I have been so concerned.”

While it bears noting that the Weld County DA’s Office did not file criminal charges, investigators nevertheless suggested an ethics probe may be warranted, and a town-led investigation continues. Interestingly, one of Carroll’s chief allies, outgoing Erie mayor Tina Harris, appears to be attempting to sweep the entire affair under the rug, insisting on Facebook that  “there was no collusion,” and taking a thinly veiled shot at Krieger – the town administrator – as an outsider who had no business raising red flags. “Enough outside interference. Enough of the nastiness. Enough making Erie look asinine.”

An ugly affair indeed. We will in due course know the response of Erie voters to the scandal and should expect similar ugliness to follow anti-growth politics around the state. We should also hope that officials find nothing asinine about defending Colorado’s electoral integrity when it does.

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.