A year of tragedy and triumph

The top 10 stories of the year

CCM staff
Posted

The past year was some kind of ride — an emotional roller coaster, if you will.

The year brought the nation a presidential election and the barrage of campaign ads preceding it. It brought us a Summer Olympics and a contingent of American champions.

In Colorado, 2012 brought us a slew of wildfires that cost some people everything and filled the skies with smoke as far as you could see. The year brought us the Aurora theater massacre.

South Metro Denver residents shared in all of this in one way or another. But here, we also saw signs of a potentially booming economy as more and more developers and employers moved in. We saw a school district entangled in controversy. And we saw tragedies that hit on a smaller scale, but were equally heartbreaking to area communities.

What follows is a compilation of the South Metro area's top 10 stories of the year as chosen by the newsroom staff of Colorado Community Media. These are the stories we believe had the greatest impact on our readers in 2012. They are presented in no particular order. We'll let you, the reader, be the judge of the single biggest story of the year.

Projects, employers flock to area

Construction permits for commercial development jumped significantly while employers flocked to Douglas and Arapahoe counties in 2012.

Activity continued near Highlands Ranch's Town Center as Children's Hospital Colorado, the first hospital in the unincorporated enclave, broke ground in May 2012 and is set to open in December 2013. The expansion of the retail hub was further helped in 2012 by the construction of numerous restaurants and Les Schwab Tire Center, Starbucks and Sprint.

In neighboring Lone Tree, crews began construction on Cabela's at Interstate 25 and RidgeGate Parkway, and work continued farther north on the Kaiser Permanente medical campus on Park Meadows Drive. The southwest corner of Lincoln and I-25 had lots of movement, with Hampton Inn, Embassy Suites and the 281-unit Vue Apartments going up.

Across the highway, in the Meridian International Business Center, information technology company TriZetto built new offices, and work began on a building that will be occupied by Hitachi. Polystrand, a manufacturer of composite materials, also built a facility on the edge of Douglas and Arapahoe counties.

Construction began on a $41 million Centura Hospital in Castle Rock, and two senior housing facilities opened in the Parker area. In Englewood, nearly $50 million in building permits for new construction were issued this year, and a number of projects are scheduled to start in the first quarter of 2013.

In Littleton, a new CarMax was built and an Alzheimer's care center is under construction. Two car-lot expansions, a Health South rehab facility and a movie theater are also in the works.

– Chris Michlewicz

Mourning a fallen officer

The South Metro area mourned the May 28 death of Jeremy Bitner, an Englewood police officer struck and killed by an alleged drunken driver.

Days later, law enforcement officers wore black bands on their badges, flags were flown at half staff in Bitner's honor and estimates are that a couple thousand people lined Hampden Avenue to pay their respects as a mile-long funeral procession passed by. It is believed that Bitner's death was the first of an Englewood officer in the line of duty.

Residents from Englewood and around the area rallied to help raise money for Bitner's wife and two young children. Efforts ranged from selling lemonade to a fundraising motorcycle ride.

One of the largest efforts was an event put together by the Englewood city government, businesses and residents that lasted all afternoon and raised several thousand dollars for the Bitner family, who live in Centennial.

The drunken-driving suspect, Conner Donohue, 20, was arrested on several charges, including vehicular homicide. In October, he pleaded not guilty to all charges. His trial is tentatively scheduled for April 2013.

– Tom Munds

Discord in Douglas County schools

The Douglas County School District met with repeated resistance and incited a string of controversy in 2012 as the board attempted to implement significant changes in education.

In March, the district opened its annual negotiations with the teachers' union to the public, an effort that ended with the expiration of the long-standing collective bargaining agreement.

Since then, the district has implemented a market-based pay program for its teachers, and begun implementation of a new pay-for-performance program. Both are controversial among teachers.

In August, a former teacher began a one-man protest in front of the district's administration building in Castle Rock. It grew into what has become a series of regular protests before school board meetings by those who oppose some board policies.

In November, the controversial voucher program had its second day in court, as attorneys for the school district and those who oppose the plan argued their points before the Colorado Court of Appeals. A decision is not expected until early 2013. A Denver District Court judge last year ruled that the program, which would allow DCSD students to use public funds toward tuition at private schools, is unconstitutional.

 – Jane Reuter

Aurora shootings left us all wounded

We awoke to horror July 20.

Cheerful thoughts of weekend plans quickly gave way to disbelief, shock and sorrow that Friday morning. From TV, radio, the Internet - everywhere you looked - the news came at us like a sledgehammer: Just after midnight, a gunman had opened fire at a movie theater in Aurora.

We would find out that 12 people were killed and nearly five dozen wounded. We would watch that weekend as police staked out and searched the apartment of the suspect they had in custody, James Holmes, fearing that the 24-year-old had booby-trapped his home. We would hear stories of heroism amid the terror.

Coloradans had been through this nightmare before, more than a decade earlier. After Columbine, as in the summer of 2012, talk arose about gun control, about security, about what lurks inside the hearts and minds of killers.

Then, as now, we learned more about healing than anything else.

 – Chris Rotar

Coffman makes it back to Washington

This time, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman faced a test.

With Colorado's newly redrawn 6th District expected to be one of the most hotly contested congressional races of 2012, the Republican Coffman leaned heavily on those who elected him to his previous two terms. In November, Coffman defeated Democratic challenger Joe Miklosi by 4 percentage points.

Coffman collected 12,247 more votes than his challenger in Douglas County, while edging him by 884 votes in Adams County and losing Arapahoe County by 6,744.

The incumbent was viewed as an extremely vulnerable candidate after winning twice before in what had been a conservative safe-haven. Once the lines were redrawn, Elbert County and all of Douglas except Highlands Ranch were eliminated. The district added the remainder of Aurora, a heavily Democratic municipality.

Coffman, who was attacked repeatedly in ads by Miklosi, spent a fair amount of spring and summer on the hot seat for comments he made in May at an Elbert County Town Hall. It was then he called out President Barack Obama, saying, “I do know this, that in his heart, he's not an American. He's just not an American.”

— Ryan Boldrey

Communities face decisions on marijuana

With Colorado voters legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for those 21 and older in November, area cities and towns are grappling with whether or not to allow retail sales or commercial growth.

Residents of unincorporated Douglas County, like everyone else, can grow up to six plants in their homes and partake legally in private. However, they will have to head elsewhere to purchase their weed. On Dec. 18, the county became the first in the state to ban commercial facilities.

The county's municipalities are looking to do the same. The Town of Parker adopted a ban on commercial operations, effective Dec. 23, and councils for the Town of Castle Rock and City of Lone Tree are considering similar bans, which could go into effect in early 2013.

In Arapahoe County, Englewood has already passed an ordinance against commercial grow operations and shops, while Littleton, Centennial and the county are still figuring out which direction to go. Arapahoe County currently allows medical marijuana dispensaries, as do Englewood and Littleton.

— Ryan Boldrey

Caught up in `Missy mania'

A 17-year-old swimmer from Centennial captivated the nation this past summer. Missy Franklin won five medals, four of them gold, at the Olympics in London.

In August, hundreds of fans packed Centennial Center Park for a welcome-home ceremony for Franklin and all of Colorado's Olympians. But the hometown girl was the star of the show in what ended up being more like a big block party as “The Missile” danced her way to the podium to Carly Rae Jepson's “Call Me, Maybe.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper and Centennial Mayor Cathy Noon lauded Franklin, along with six additional Colorado athletes on their return from London. Team USA grabbed 104 medals. Nine of those were awarded to Coloradans.

“That makes about 8.69 percent of the total medal count going to Colorado,” said Hickenlooper. “So I'd say we definitely outperformed the market substantially.”

Franklin, a Regis Jesuit High School senior, will swim for the University of California at Berkeley next year.

— Deborah Grigsby

Massive wildfire threatens from south

This past year was devastating to Colorado when it came to wildfires. For residents of southern Douglas County, one fire loomed most ominously, but ultimately spared the county's land and residents.

The first signs of smoke from the devastating Waldo Canyon Fire were reported on June 23, and by June 27, Douglas County officials ordered the pre-evacuation of residents in the southwest portion of the county, including residents in Larkspur and Perry Park.

Within days, Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an order to prohibit private fireworks displays and, by June 27, Douglas County Sheriff Dave Weaver canceled all professional Fourth of July fireworks displays in the county, joining communities in the metropolitan area and along the Front Range.

By July 10, when the fire was declared officially contained by fire officials, the blaze had reached 18,247 acres and damaged or destroyed 391 homes.

— Rhonda Moore

Sterling Ranch hits roadblock

Just when it looked like Sterling Ranch was ready to take off, it was dealt a surprise setback.

The planned development in the Chatfield Valley was approved by Douglas County commissioners in May 2011, with plans to develop 3,500 acres to create 12,000 homes.

Within weeks of the approval, the Chatfield Community Association filed a lawsuit to stop the development, in part because of the developer's plan to submit water adequacy at each plat or phase of development. In August 2012, a Douglas County district judge agreed with the association and reversed the county's decision.

District Court Judge Paul King ruled the proposal to establish water adequacy at each plat violated a state law that requires developers to prove their water supply at the rezoning stage for new construction.

“While land use and development is a matter of local concern, the adequacy of water for new developments is a matter of statewide concern,” King ruled. “To this end our legislature mandated … that local government shall not approve an application for a development unless it determines that the applicant has established that the proposed water supply for the development is adequate.”

In November 2012, King denied a request for reconsideration filed by developer Harold Smethhills, and on Dec. 19, Douglas County filed its promised appeal of King's ruling.

— Rhonda Moore

Slayings shake Littleton

Littleton can go years without a violent death. But in 2012, police found themselves investigating five homicides.

• Darin Ninneman stands accused of stabbing his mother to death. Their drug-fueled relationship apparently imploded.

• In what might have been Littleton's first gang murder, a shooting left Da Von Flores dead and a 17-year-0ld boy wounded. Police arrested Dion Rankin.

• Ken Germain, a 68-year-old mortgage lender with a spotty past, was shot to death. His business partner, Colin Collea, was found dead later that night, apparently a suicide.

• Police arrested Teddy Puente and an unidentified girl in the death of Walter Zucchetti. His body was discovered in his apartment. The coroner's office hasn't released autopsy results.

• Dylan Jones thought his uncle was an intruder and stabbed him to death. The district attorney declined to press charges.

Add a violent gas-station attack and two home invasions, and for many, 2012 was a year they would like to forget.

— Jennifer Smith

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