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The beast out east

Toll road opponents rise up in force, threaten GOP defection

Chuck Shaw and Marsha Looper, of the Eastern Plains - Citizens Coalition, stand on land they want protected - from a private toll road. - DAN WILCOCK
  • Dan Wilcock
  • Chuck Shaw and Marsha Looper, of the Eastern Plains Citizens Coalition, stand on land they want protected from a private toll road.

An unwritten law in El Paso County and Colorado politics has slowly been written over the last decade: Think twice before double-crossing the plains.

Developer Ray Wells may have thought he'd have an easy time this year convincing the Colorado Legislature to allow his company to build a 12-mile-wide private toll road slashing east from Fort Collins and south to Pueblo. And initially he was right, with his plan sailing through the state's House of Representatives.

But after tremendous opposition on the plains, the tables have turned. At the end of a frenzied legislative session, Gov. Bill Owens, who once championed the toll-road, now must decide whether to sign two laws that could cripple it.

And if he doesn't sign them, many plains residents who railed against the plan, nicknaming it "Super Slab," warn they may execute a coup de grce: large-scale defection from the Republican Party.

"A lot of people never thought we'd get this far," said Chuck Shaw, 55, of Peyton and co-chair of the Eastern Plains Citizen's Coalition.

Swarming the capitol

Since late March, the efforts by coalition and allied groups, comprising thousands of enraged plains citizens, have been met with surprising success.

First they swarmed the capitol, stopping the bill that would have given Wells the right to seize their property under eminent domain laws. Then they succeeded in pressuring lawmakers to pass two rival bills designed to control the toll-road plan: One would narrow the corridor from 12 to three miles and make the state's Department of Transportation responsible for monitoring environmental impacts; the other would take the power of eminent domain condemnations away from private companies for toll roads.

"Being a lifelong Republican, our strategy was to contact the Republican Party because [they are] supposed to be about private rights," said Marsha Looper, 46, the coalition's chair.

But Republicans, especially the delegation from El Paso County, resisted one of the coalition's two bills, Senate Bill 230, concerning eminent domain. Owens has said he'll veto it.

"How do you get them to listen to you?" Looper asked. "[Republicans] might be losing another 15 seats [in the next election] because they want to give our land away to a private company."

Some Republicans have shied away from the eminent domain law because it gives away too much power.

"We need to consider the effects from this bill long down the road," said Colorado Republican Party communications director Rachael Sunbarger.

Democrats aren't sleeping on the opportunity.

"We'd be fools not to see what we can make out of it," said John Morris, chair of El Paso County's Democrat Party. "We are looking for people who are emerging as leaders out there."

Stubborn and independent

But any politician who hopes to make hay on the plains should keep in mind the region's stubbornly independent streak.

Former El Paso County commissioner and plains resident Loren Whittemore knows how stubborn they can be.

He spent years in the 1990s as a commissioner wrangling over whether to impose zoning on the eastern part of the county, enduring death threats.

"Zoning is the thing that gave them the cohesiveness to do what they did," Whittemore said. "They are a voting bloc, and they organize more than people realize."

Although the nascent voting bloc eventually lost its fight to stop zoning in 1999, it won a few years later when an Xcel Energy plan to build a huge electricity line through the corridor was derailed by opposition.

If a politician underestimates them, Whittemore said, they'll quickly try to show him who is boss.

"I do believe that if Owens vetoes [Senate Bill 230]," Looper said, "you'll have a Republican backlash in the corridor."

-- Dan Wilcock

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