El Rancho residents leery of housing proposal

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By Stephen Knapp

When the folks hoping to build a workforce housing complex at El Rancho met with folks already living there, nobody went home satisfied.

On Thursday evening, March 27, representatives of the faith-based nonprofit Rocky Mountain Housing Development Co. held a pre-zoning meeting in the auditorium of Evergreen Fire/Rescue’s Station No. 2 on Bergen Parkway. Their purpose was to explain the nature of their organization and its objectives. Their audience included numerous supporters of the proposed affordable-housing project and all homeowners living within a 2-mile radius of Wal-Mart. Their reception was decidedly mixed.

In brief, RMHDC wants to construct 72 apartment and townhome units in six- and nine-plex configurations on a 5-acre parcel behind Wal-Mart next to Interstate 70. Considered “gap” housing, the project aims to help area low- and middle-income families on their way to more permanent situations.

“It’s a model we’ve had great success with,” explained RMHDC’s executive director, Joyce Alms-Ransford, who plans to hold at least two more public meetings on the subject. In the last decade, RMHDC has completed three workforce housing developments in Denver’s western suburbs comprising 192 units, and another 51-unit building is under construction in downtown Denver.

“About 10 percent of the families we serve go on to home ownership every year,” Alms-Ransford said.

Blue Spruce Habitat for Humanity president Paul Motz-Story stood among those who’d turned out in support of the enterprise.

“With Habitat, I work with people in similar situations all the time,” he said. “I think we all benefit when opportunities exist for people of all income levels to live here.

“My daughter’s in college right now, and I think she’s exactly the kind of person who will benefit from this kind of housing. I’d like to think that, if she wants to, she could find an affordable place to live near her family when she graduates. Don’t we want to live in a place where kids can live in the neighborhood they grew up in?”

While many in the room agreed with that sentiment, the greater part of the audience was drawn from the southern Genesee area and Spring Ranch, an exclusive neighborhood of 5-plus-acre estates that begins a quarter-mile down the valley from Home Depot. Among those local homeowners, resistance was strong.

“I think it’s a great project that you guys are involved in,” said a Spring Ranch resident, “but putting low-income housing next to a neighborhood where the medium home value is a million-five is a big concern for me.

“With low-income housing, you get people who are mentally unstable,” a woman said. “It makes more sense to leave them downtown where they can get the services they need.”

“How are you going to keep them from trespassing on my land?” a man wanted to know.

“What guarantee do we have that the kids will be well-supervised?” asked another woman.

Alms-Ransford answered her by detailing her organization’s many programs designed to ensure its residents both a nurturing community environment and future financial success.

“If we were some commercial developer that just put up apartments and then washed our hands of them, that would be a real concern,” she said. “All of our communities have a full-time property manager on site, and we provide our families with constant support for as long as they’re with us.”

“We want to build a community,” explained Scott Romero, RMHDC’s director of family services. “Once they have a secure roof over their heads, the work and progress can really begin.”

For children, the organization offers after-school youth development programs, encourages Scouting activities and arranges outings like ski and hiking trips.

RMHDC also provides a variety of adult services, everything from career counseling to resume writing to money-management advice.

“And we work with the Jeffco health department to promote the health and well-being of our families,” Romero said. “We think we provide well-rounded services that get people moving toward home-ownership.”

Evergreen resident Brett Champine took the opportunity of the pre-zoning meeting to promote an alternative to the El Rancho site, an option greeted enthusiastically in many quarters. As it happens, Champine owns several acres in the southeastern angle of Lewis Ridge Road and Evergreen Parkway, that he’s willing to sell to Rocky Mountain HDC. According to Alms-Ransford, however, Champine’s property has a few serious drawbacks.

“For one thing, the land he’s proposing is on a northern exposure, which means it would be icy all winter, and that’s a safety concern,” she said in a later interview. “And it isn’t flat. It’s up on the hillside, so it would need a ton of grading and we’d have to take out a lot of trees. Those are things the neighbors don’t want to see.

“The El Rancho site is on a southern exposure, would need minimal grading, and has almost no trees that would have to come out. And at El Rancho, very, very few neighbors would be directly impacted. That’s not the case with Brett’s property.”

Perhaps most problematic, Champine’s proposal contains a series of unconnected lots, which would render the development a scattered patchwork of unrelated buildings.

“There would be no continuity to the neighborhood, and that wouldn’t work well with our model. We haven’t dismissed Champine’s proposal by any means, but El Rancho is a better site, and right now we’re going to stay focused on that.”

Officially, the meeting ended at shortly after 7 o’clock, but discussion continued for the better part of half an hour. While Spring Ranch resident Carol Mimnaugh said she has no quarrel with affordable housing in the mountain area, she points out that the issue of El Rancho development goes deeper than 72 units behind Wal-Mart and precedes the current debate by more than a decade.

“First it was Wal-Mart, then it was Home Depot — it seems like we’ve been fighting rezoning in El Rancho forever, and we’ve already been hugely impacted by the development we have now,” Mimnaugh said. “This proposal will mean more density, more traffic, more impact on the neighborhood. It will mean more noise pollution and more light pollution. It used to be you could see the stars at night. You expect to be able to enjoy some of the things you moved here for.”