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Posted: September 01, 2009

Who owns Colorado: Free rain on the range

The giant Sterling Ranch development in Douglas County wants to use rainwater for landscaping

David Lewis

The nascent 3,120-acre Sterling Ranch is a prospective infill development on the largest contiguous parcel of land in northwestern Douglas County. 

The land’s treeless panorama offers views of open space to the south and east, and to the west views of attractions including Roxborough State Park, Chatfield State Park, Waterton Canyon, the South Platte River and the Lockheed Martin Space Systems headquarters complex.

The prospective residential-commercial community sits atop the declining Denver Basin aquifer in Douglas County, which is not dwindling: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Douglas was the only Denver metro-area county to record positive job growth in 2008.
Sterling Ranch managing partner Harold Smethills cites two innovative approaches to water conservation, one strategic and one tactical, so to speak.

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The tactical one came into play in June, when Gov. Bill Ritter signed into law a bill permitting as many as 10 new developments to capture rainwater. State Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, credited Smethills as the driving force behind the new law. In a land tour with ColoradoBiz, Sterling Ranch partners Jack Hoagland and Smethills agreed they hoped the development would be one of those 10 test sites.

Rainwater would likely be used for Sterling Ranch’s landscaping, Smethills says, freeing up river water and groundwater for other uses
Then, too, Smethills cites research that showed about 3 percent of rainwater flows into streams or groundwater. Yet rainwater could serve three-quarters of intelligently planned outdoor landscaping, he says, and the economics make sense on a big plot of land with large open spaces.

 “Everything backs up into water conservation, (being) water-wise,” Smethills says. “Too often, we do little, isolated random things trying to conserve water and hope they’ll add up to something. We have a blank sheet of paper. We start where everybody else wants to get, by orienting everything around water.“ 

The strategic idea is called “conjunctive use,” an approach to water use developed in the late 1980s. Conjunctive use coordinates management of surface water and groundwater supplies to maximize overall water yield. Usually, it means using more surface water in wet years and more groundwater in dry years.

“With conjunctive use, you use river water, renewable water, in conjunction with the aquifer water,” Smethills says, waving toward Chatfield Reservoir. “The reason you want the deep aquifer water is, these lakes are used to store water, but the lakes will evaporate 6 feet to 8 feet per year that will never be put to productive use. In drought and dry years you save a huge amount of water by using the groundwater.”

Water use drives a bunch of planning considerations. To Hoagland, the Sterling Ranch development’s key components are “conservation of water, access to open space, a cluster of density to allow greater open space, and then finding common elements such as how many of our own calories we can grow, common area landscaping that’s edible.”

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Sterling Ranch LLC is the family business of Harold and Diane Smethills and Hoagland, Diane’s younger brother. They estimate Sterling Ranch will cost $3.4 billion by its finish in 2026 or possibly later, perhaps 2035, so they say it is a long-term legacy.

Certainly it is the biggest deal of their lifetimes: up to 12,000 homes in seven clusters, five elementary schools, a middle school and a high school, an 82-acre sports complex to be built around a new headquarters for the Colorado Rush soccer team by the side of a lake where now there is a gravel pit; 1,120 acres of residential neighborhoods divided by trails and about 1,100 acres of open space and parks; plus, on the land’s north, a 235-acre commercial/retail “town center.”

The trio began working on what became Sterling Ranch in 2001, later buying it for an undisclosed amount from Colorado legends Joy and Franklin Burns — she a year-2000 inductee in the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame; he a 2002 inductee into membership in the Colorado Business Hall of Fame. Each is honored by buildings named for them on the University of Denver campus. Before the Burnses, the Sterling family had ranched the land since shortly after the Civil War.

Occupying about three-quarters of the Chatfield Valley, the development consists of Sterling Ranch, 280-acre Allis Ranch, and 640 acres owned by the State Land Board, which will receive 70 percent of the profits that result from the improvement of the acreage.

Last year, the development played a large part in controversy over whether Douglas County ought to proceed with plans to permit urban development on Chatfield Valley land south of Titan Road, most of it owned or controlled by Sterling Ranch LLC. Some local homeowners, especially those near the development’s northern end, told the Douglas County Planning Commission the development would spoil their views and stir unwanted traffic and overall congestion. 

 Meanwhile, others said they favored the developer’s promises to share water in an area where many homeowners have had to dig expensive new wells.

In the end, the Douglas County Planning Board voted 7-2 to amend the county’s 2030 Master Comprehensive Plan, paving the way for Sterling Ranch.

Sterling Ranch LLC submitted its zoning proposal to Douglas County in February and is somewhere in the early-middle of the approval process.

“There’s a lot of talk about sustainability and what that means. It has wildly different connotations in different parts of the country,” Hoagland says. “We’re a high desert with very little annual rainfall and a stingy growing season.

“What we’re asking is, ‘How does that couple with looking at all aspects of sustainability, the environment, the economy, to what are emerging trends, and really designing a community that probably wouldn’t work in other parts of the country but is really handcrafted and tailor-made to this one?’”

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