When their son decided he didn't want to keep running his business on property they bought near Calhan, Betty and Tom Palmer figured it was no big deal.
"We thought, "How could we lose?'" Betty says.
She and her husband had added utility and phone lines to the 35-acre property, and they also fixed up a building on it for the towing and storage company's office. Even without an immediate business use, the land beside U.S. Highway 24 seemed a "good investment," Palmer says.
Then along came the prospect of Super Slab, a 210-mile toll road on the eastern plains from Pueblo nearly to the Wyoming border.
Their land falls in a three-mile swath identified as the corridor for the project, and the Palmers are among thousands of property owners who have seen the plan add to their land titles 12 pages of what Betty calls "legal mumbo-jumbo."
"How can the state or anyone else do this?" she asks. "No one will touch us for refinancing."
Thoughts of selling, she adds, are equally remote.
The Palmers' struggles are not unique for people unlucky enough to fall under the saddle of a developer's super-highway fantasy.
Representatives of what is officially called the Prairie Falcon Parkway Express mailed statements outlining the road plan to clerks in El Paso, Pueblo, Elbert, Arapahoe, Adams, Weld and Larimer counties more than a year ago. They were following an obscure provision of a law passed in early 2006 that was meant to regulate the creation of new toll roads.
State Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, whose fight against Super Slab started before she was elected to the Legislature last year, says the language that has county clerks attaching the statement to titles never should have made it into the bill; it was a mistake attorneys made.
A possible wasteland
The language has dimmed or even derailed the prospect of selling homes and properties within the corridor, and has made it impossible for many owners to refinance or get loans for home improvements.
Looper and other lawmakers backed legislation earlier this year that would have, among other things, cleared up the titles, but the bill died in the Senate. She says she hopes similar legislation makes it through in 2008.
"It's setting up a wasteland in those seven counties," says Looper, who owns a ranch that extends into the corridor. "Those property values will go down."
Developer Ray Wells first went public with his dream for a toll route on the eastern plains about two decades ago, but the plan only started drawing wide attention in the past few years.
Colorado law essentially allows developers to lay claim to whole swaths of land for the purpose of building toll roads, holding onto them indefinitely if they spend $500,000 within three years of announcing the project.
Looper calls Super Slab a "10,000-pound gorilla" that "nobody's given the OK to be in the room."
Considering the girth of the project, it has generated surprisingly little noise since the legislative session ended.
Mona Olszewski, who has lived in Rangeview Estates near Calhan since 1983, says that's making her nervous.
The quiet extends to home sales in the area. Olszewski says her family has no immediate plans to move, but she has watched neighbors place "for sale" signs outside their homes, only to remove them after weeks or months of no action.
Not every home within the three-mile-wide Super Slab corridor will end up being needed. Even with a rail line and utilities beside the four-lane road, plans call for a final strip about 1,200 feet wide less than a quarter-mile.
Everything in limbo
Finding out whether planners are any closer to identifying that strip isn't easy. Jason Hopfer, who has acted as a spokesman for the toll-road company, says he's "not working for them right now," deferring calls to Kathy Oatis, a lobbyist.
Oatis says the company is now completing formal rail and traffic studies.
"Until those studies are completed, everything is in limbo," Oatis says.
Letters from the Prairie Falcon Parkway Express Co. were meant to be informational, not to be attached to residents' titles, Oatis explains.
"That should never have happened," she says. "We feel terrible about the whole thing."
Such sentiments, however, do little to help residents like the Palmers. Unlike some of her neighbors, Betty Palmer says, she's not even opposed to the idea of building a toll highway.
"If they want to build the damn road, build the damn road," she says.
But road construction, if it ever happens, seems a long way off. After completing traffic and rail studies and getting approval from state transportation officials, toll-road officials will need to complete environmental studies before the project is reviewed by local authorities.
Betty Palmer says she fears her property value will slide before then, making it impossible for her to see what would have been a fair market price.