I'm not sure what the problem is some people have with Highlands Ranch.
I grew up a couple miles north of Highlands Ranch in Littleton. I just returned to Colorado out of 10 years and we just purchased a house in Highlands Ranch. We looked all around the south side of the Denver area, and we found our best options in Highlands Ranch.
Highlands Ranch is new, clean, and has more very ample arteries to prevent congestion. There are great rec centers, parks, greenbelts, and trails which serves my biking hobby well. Everything we need is within about 4 miles of us, and most of what we need on a daily basis is within 1.5.
Yes, the houses pretty much all look the same. So? My wife and I drove to downtown Denver yesterday down University and there was an area of older houses and large trees and my wife commented, "This might as well be part of New York City." And she was right. Many older houses look very similar to many other older houses just as today's newer houses look similar to other houses built recently. I feel it's just a matter of picking your style. Personally, I think the older houses look nice to drive by, but I wouldn't want to live in one.
The HOA rules are also a benefit. It prevents rednecks from painting their house bright pink and parking broken-down trucks on their front lawn. If those are the kinds of neighbors you want, don't look in Highlands Ranch.
I also haven't experienced any of the "smugness" that people claim in Highlands Ranch. People are nice, period, and none of them ask where you're from before they're nice.
In short, I just don't understand the criticism leveled at Highlands Ranch.