The rise of Lone Tree

Still-growing city exceeds founders’ expectations

Jane Reuter
Special to Community Media of Colorado
Posted 12/10/11

Jane Staebell didn’t like what she saw in her early 1990s Lone Tree neighborhood. The 10-year-old unincorporated development that encircled a …

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The rise of Lone Tree

Still-growing city exceeds founders’ expectations

Posted

Jane Staebell didn’t like what she saw in her early 1990s Lone Tree neighborhood. The 10-year-old unincorporated development that encircled a private golf course already had fallen on hard times.

“The gray wooden fencing the original developer put up was ratty and starting to fall down. It had holes in it, and there was no money for us to maintain it,” she said.

At the corner of Lone Tree Parkway and Yosemite Street, Staebell describes “a Barney Rubble looking fountain” that sputtered infrequently.

“Over the years it was built and rebuilt, and looked pretty hodgepodge,” she said.

Weeds proliferated in the medians. The flowers that now color many of Lone Tree’s streets were nonexistent.

Staebell, whom many call the mother of Lone Tree, decided to push for incorporation. She fanned an undercurrent of concern about the community that pre-dated her move there. That unease set in shortly after the first homeowners moved into The Charter neighborhood, Filing 1 of the Lone Tree development, in the early 1980s. Buyers were drawn to the fledgling development not just by its high-quality homes, but promises of future shared amenities.

“Brochures touted scenic biking and jogging trails and acres and acres of wide-open spaces,” reads a history of the area published on The Charter Homeowners Association Web site.

Yet only a short section of trail wound behind the current Lone Tree Civic Center, stopping short of Sweetwater Road. The community didn’t have a single park, and none were on the developer’s drawing board.

The residents’ pleas for these features fell on mostly deaf ears, and that was a mistake. The developer agreed to build a single park if the residents stopped their public criticism, according to the Charter HOA Web site. Instead of acquiescing, Charter homeowners showed up at the next Douglas County Commissioners meeting, bringing with them the developers’ one-park offer and brochures that described the absent amenities.

“Douglas County stopped all development in Lone Tree until the developer found a way to provide what had been promised to the residents of Lone Tree,” the Charter’s historians write.

Decision to incorporate

Lone Tree’s future brightened further in 1991 when the South Suburban Parks and Recreation District bought the troubled golf course and massive building that housed the clubhouse, restaurant and hotel. As a district facility, the private course opened its doors to the public.

Still, as Lone Tree grew, so,  too, did the problems that drew Staebell’s attention. Thirteen separate homeowners associations co-existed in Lone Tree, most with no authority to collect dues and repair the toll time already had taken on the community.

Staebell, along with a couple other residents, set pencil to paper to see if incorporation was feasible. A 10-year resident of the Willow Creek neighborhood in then-unincorporated Centennial, Staebell had helped the homeowners association there set aside money to maintain its aesthetic appeal before she moved to Lone Tree. She knew an incorporated community would need a steady revenue stream. Her eye was on County Line Road.

Highlands Ranch already had considered incorporation, hypothesizing inclusion of the then mostly undeveloped area along County Line Road. When Highlands Ranch abandoned the idea, Staebell said she and other Lone Tree residents sprang into action.

“We realized that if someone else like Highlands Ranch or Greenwood Village came in and captured the commercial area, then Lone Tree would simply be left with the residential area, and no way of handling the road issues we had,” she said.

Lone Tree residents also wanted more control of the way the commercial developments looked. Many were unhappy with buildings constructed under Douglas County’s architectural guidelines, and felt retailers should be held to a higher standard.

To garner support for the incorporation, Staebell, Mark Druva and Bob Demonbrun compiled reams of information. They tallied the cost of road maintenance, law enforcement, planning and zoning, balancing that against projected sales tax revenues from businesses that already existed or had been approved.

The trio met in the Lone Tree development sales office at the corner of Lone Tree Parkway and Sweetwater Road. The site is now home to the Lone Tree Civic Center. Buckets and pans littered the floor when it rained, catching water that sneaked in through the leaky roof. Because it had no air conditioning, the incorporation proponents often left the doors open during their meetings. At least once, a raccoon wandered in, Staebell said.

Campaign gains backers

Other supporters joined the three and logged long hours of planning, all of them fueled by a vision for their community. The Lone Tree of their dreams was a first-class community of brick fences and carefully planned landscaping, its ambiance reminiscent of Greenwood Village or Cherry Hills.

“We didn’t want to have ‘Lone Tree’ emblazoned everywhere, but we wanted people who drove through Lone Tree to know there was a difference, that it was well-kept, groomed and cared for, a quality community,” Staebell said.

That idea extended to architectural details. Lone Tree’s founders wanted cornices, brick and stone accents and natural colors that would stand the test of time. Those details, they believed, would help keep the commercial engine running strong.

Park Meadows Retail Resort, the massive mall that would eventually be Lone Tree’s financial golden goose, wasn’t part of those initial projections. It opened in 1996, a year after the city incorporated.

Key to the incorporation effort was Incredible Universe, a massive electronics store built at Interstate 25 and Yosemite Street that is now The Great Indoors. The additional sales tax it would generate made the calculations work.

“Then our revenue numbers were above our expenditures,” Staebell said.

Ironically, Incredible Universe also provided dramatic visual proof of the need for change.

“They put a big, purple stripe around their buildings,” said current Lone Tree City Council member Harold Anderson, then president of the Country Club Estates Homeowners Association. “They left the lights on all night. We couldn’t do anything. That got us thinking, ‘Why are we letting the people in Castle Rock make all our decisions’?”

In late 1994, Staebell and other incorporation proponents began holding public meetings about the idea.

Their arguments were persuasive. Not only would most of the sales tax supporting the new city come from shoppers who lived outside Lone Tree, the proposal included no property tax.

In November 1995, community members approved the incorporation by a wide margin, with 676 votes in favor and only 165 against.

The city held its first council meeting in June 1996, with Jack O’Boyle as mayor. He served as the city’s leader for 12 years.

“I could not imagine anything more rewarding,” said O’Boyle, who still lives in Lone Tree and is now a Regional Transportation District board director. “The residents had this incredible sense we did the right thing. We’re still doing the right thing.”

Inherent changes

The infant Lone Tree looked very different from the teenager of today. Then, it was one-square mile, framed by County Line Road, Lincoln Avenue, Yosemite Street and Highlands Ranch. It had no employees. All jobs required to run the city were contracted out. The intent was to keep Lone Tree geographically and structurally small.

“Lone Tree would be a city that operates much as a special district,” said city manager Jack Hidahl. Hired full-time in 2005, he helped craft Lone Tree’s home rule charter. “We wouldn’t create an additional bureaucracy that would absorb taxpayers’ money.”

The 2000 annexation of RidgeGate, a six-square-mile property south of Lincoln Avenue that is now partially developed, dramatically changed those original formulas.

In 2004, Lone Tree opted to start its own police department and end its contract agreement with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.

The demands of the rapidly growing city shifted it to its current, more traditional structure. The city now employs about 70 people, Hidahl said, but still contracts for financial services and public works.

While the city is in fine financial shape, the high standards established with its founding have cost it some high-profile sales tax generators. IKEA continued down I-25 to Centennial after Lone Tree told developers its bright blue and yellow design wouldn’t fly there. American Furniture Warehouse also opted to build in Centennial instead of Lone Tree.

“It’s worked for us and against us,” said Ada Anderson, a longtime member of the city’s planning commission. “We didn’t get IKEA or American Furniture but we kept our standards.”

It also kept enough sales tax revenue to add some of its most recent and popular amenities. Since 2009, Lone Tree added a new pool and tennis courts. Just four months ago, it opened the $23 million Lone Tree Arts Center.

“Everything else was very important — the police, the planning — all those things were fundamentally important,” said former city council member Elton Winters. “But that’s the nickel’s worth of chrome you put on your automobile to make it look like a million bucks. The arts center, pool and tennis courts just added so much quality-of-life value to what we have here.”

Good things to come

Winters sees a lot more chrome in Lone Tree’s future, including the city center envisioned east of I-25 and south of Lincoln in RidgeGate. The tentative plan calls for an urban style core with high-rise buildings and a light rail station.

“This is kind of like living in Vail, only in the metropolitan area,” Winters said. “It’s a great place to live, yet we have that small community feel. This is the Vail of the plains.”

Anderson says the Lone Tree of today is better than he and many of the original incorporation proponents ever imagined.

“There weren’t any of us in that original group that had a vision it was going to be anywhere near as good as it’s turned out,” he said.

The history of Lone Tree

1982 — First homeowners move into the new Lone Tree development

1985 — Lone Tree Golf Club, centerpiece of the Lone Tree residential development, opens. It includes an Arnold Palmer-designed course, and 45,000-square-foot clubhouse with hotel suites and a restaurant.

1991 — South Suburban Parks and Recreation District buys struggling Lone Tree Golf Club and Hotel.

November 1995 — City of Lone Tree incorporates.

June 1996 — Lone Tree City Council holds its first meeting.

May 1998 — Lone Tree becomes a Colorado home rule city.

October 1998 — Lone Tree Library opens.

August 2000 — Lone Tree voters approve annexation of 3,500-acre RidgeGate property.

August 2003 — Sky Ridge Medical Center opens.

May 2004 — Lone Tree Recreation center opens.

January 2007 — Park Meadows mall annexed into Lone Tree.

June 2009 — New Cook Creek Pool opens.

May 2010 — Tennis Center and Park opens at Lone Tree Golf Club.

August 2011 — Lone Tree Arts Center opens.

 

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