Colorado Town Hanging onto History

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on March 17, 2002

Elizabeth, Colo., one day may be headed for life as a Denver bedroom community, but its 1,434 residents are determined to hang on to the town’s identity and character.

They are working particularly hard to protect the town’s history in the face of a development boom fueled by Denver commuters looking for a quieter lifestyle and an influx of people from other once-rural towns that have been overwhelmed by growth.

“We are preserving our town’s identity, and that means saving its history,” says Judge Dorothy Stone, who chairs a historic advisory board organized a few years ago. “The knowledge we’re gaining in Elizabeth will be invaluable for other small towns facing overwhelming growth.”

Everyone is involved. Residents are helping uncover historical tidbits for the town’s website, donating local artifacts to the Town Hall, and even buying and restoring old buildings. The Colorado Historical Society even kicked in by awarding Elizabeth $91,575 to help with the $120,000 restoration of their 1905 Town Hall.

August Johanssen, who commutes to his teaching job at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs, saw the change firsthand several years ago when he bought a lot near downtown for $35,000.

“The lot had three dilapidated buildings on it, and I’ve turned one of them into an art gallery. Now the county tells me the property is worth $150,000,’’ he says.

Elizabeth lies in western Elbert County (pop. 19,872), about 30 miles southeast of Denver. The county joined the U.S. Census Bureau’s list of the 10 fastest-growing U.S. counties when its population more than doubled between the 1990 and 2000 census reports. Elizabeth’s population grew 75 percent in the same period.

“It will take a long-term, concentrated effort, but the Colorado Historical Society believes the citizens can save their town’s identity,” says Peg Ekstrand, public relations director for the society.

One early effort was the town’s restoration of the Carlson Building, an 1898 wood structure that houses the police department and provides space for community gatherings.

At the same time, Johanssen chairs the Elizabeth Tree Advisory Board, which encourages residents to plant trees to enhance the town’s appearance. “We’re accepting tree donations and have developed long-range tree-planting concepts,’’ Johanssen says.

Mike Palmer, the former town administrator, says not enough developers were including trees in their plans, and the board was organized to address that, although he and other city officials don’t see preservation as a battle with developers.

For instance, when a developer filed a plan to build a self-storage center in Elizabeth two years ago, the town was concerned about the structure’s appearance. Instead of trying to block it, officials negotiated an agreement for the center to have an attractive gabled roof and for the developer to plant 30-foot-high ponderosa pines 10 feet apart all around the project.

Meantime, the planning commission has been working to solve major drainage problems and has approved a new 1-million-gallon water storage facility.

Palmer says Elizabeth also is working to get identical buildings codes throughout the county to put everyone on an equal footing with developers.

One developer, Bart Caldwell, has high praise for the path Elizabeth is taking.

“Palmer got the folks in town so they’re not afraid of what’s to come. Now they know they’re on top of things, and they know what the process is. They’re doing a good job to get ready for real growth.”

Bertha Trujillo, a planning commission member, agrees that the town wants to be ready.

“This is a wonderful place to live, and anything we have to do to save it is worth the effort.”