In yet another of the increasing number of showdowns in greater Colorado Springs between growth agendas and preservation interests, neighbors of the Black Forest Regional Park are accusing developers and county officials of faulty policy and planning. The BFRP is a thickly forested, 240-acre parcel of land purchased by El Paso County in October 1999, touted as one of the "crown jewels" of the county regional park system.
County Planning has received a development proposal from King's Deer Development Corp. that calls for construction of 160 upscale housing units on an 800-acre parcel of land that abuts the northern edge of the park.
The plan has angered park preservationists because the developer wants to build a road through the park to his property by extending Milam Road northward. Milam presently terminates at Shoup Road, which runs east and west along the park's southern edge.
"The park is 98-percent forested and secluded," said County Parks Director Barbara Nugent. "There are no roads along the park's west, east and northern boundaries. A lot of the people who frequent the park value it precisely because it's so undeveloped and free of urban noise, bustle and stress. To them, putting a road through that peace and quiet is unthinkable."
"This is one of the crown jewels of the county park system," agreed Gary Schinderle, a spokesperson for Friends of Black Forest Regional Park, a community preservation group that has filed for non-profit status and collected 1,000 signatures in opposition to the road extension.
"Why on earth would the county so much as consider ruining it with a road that, in the end, would be nothing more than a private entryway to a 160-home subdivision?" he asked.
A giant muddle
The Black Forest debate presents a conflict that city and county policy makers are having to confront with increasing frequency.
With the Front Range population exploding, area policy makers are faced with weighing the "growth" agendas of commercial and private development interests against neighborhood preservation concerns and demands for preservation of parks, trails and open space assets like Black Forest Park that are public domain.
And the battle for Black Forest Regional Park reflects the historical tendency for local government to complicate and confuse the issue.
In 1974, the Board of County Commissioners approved the Black Forest Preservation Plan, a master planning document that declared it county policy to discourage and minimize construction of major through roads within the 90-square-mile timbered area that gives Black Forest its name.
Toward that end, the BOCC established the Black Forest Land Use Committee, a 35-member advisory citizens group tasked with monitoring area development plans for violations of the preservation plan's intent.
In 1987, however, the County Commissioners also approved the Major Transportation Corridors Plan, a master planning document that envisioned a network of north/south and east/west thoroughfares throughout the Black Forest area that would accommodate transportation needs created by development in coming decades.
Despite their conflicting orientations, both master planning documents remain in effect. Where the Preservation Plan seemingly discourages extending Milam Road north through Black Forest Regional Park, the Transportation Corridors Plan envisions the road as an important future north/south traffic arterial.
At present, Milam runs only from Old Ranch Road on the south to Shoup Road on the north, but the Corridors Plan shows the road extending southward as a future connecting point to a future extension of Union Boulevard. It also envisions the road extending northward to connect with Hodgen, an east/west arterial that will eventually connect with Baptist Road -- an even larger arterial that will eventually extend from I-25 on the west and to Highway 24 on the east.
Meanwhile, the County Department of Transportation, County Planning and County Parks are interpreting the two development plans differently, creating a cross-purpose muddle of interests and development/preservation priorities that will ultimately have to be resolved by the courts and the County Board of Commissioners.
Where park preservationists want the park preserved in its present state of tranquil seclusion, John McCarty, a traffic engineer for the County Department of Transportation, argues that the road needs to be extended to meet future growth and transportation needs.
"Growth means that motorists need more alternatives to get from point A to point B so that traffic spreads out over a number of smaller, two-lane roads," he said. "Otherwise, you end up with the kind of congested, four-lane throughways that the Preservation Plan is designed to avoid.
"Extending Milam Road will help avoid a need for four-lane throughways in Black Forest," he added. "It would service not only the King's Deer development, but several potential future developments that will need more vehicular access than is presently available.
"Extending Milam to eventually connect with Union Boulevard and Hodgen would help to distribute traffic load and impact. That's a major concern of the County Department of Transportation."
The potential future developments alluded to by McCarty include a 1,000-acre area directly north of the proposed King's Deer development known locally as Shamrock Ranch.
Indicative of the Black Forest planning muddle is the fact that any development of the Shamrock Ranch property will probably require major court litigation.
The owner of the land, David Wismer, has not indicated whether he plans to develop his property, but years ago he put the property under a conservation easement to preserve it from development encroachment.
Wismer, who could not be reached for comment, has indicated in conversations with the county that he doesn't want a road going through his property.
Ken Rowberg of County Planning argues, however, that prior legal proceedings early in the 20th century give the county right-of-way through the property. "Ultimately," he said, "the courts will probably have to decide that conflict."
Rowberg conceded that, "If the owner of Shamrock Ranch doesn't develop, the likelihood of a putting a road going through his property is slim." In such a case, Rowberg said, the extension of Milam Road through the park is no longer crucial to the area's transportation needs.
Other conflicts and priorities
As pointed out by McCarty and Rowberg, the proposed Milam extension is also a classic neighborhood issue.
The King's Deer development already has two points of vehicular access, but they entail circuitous, hilly roads running though two small, already-existing neighborhoods.
If those roads were the sole points of access, McCarty and Rowberg point out, traffic on them would more than double, a prospect residents of those neighborhoods find unacceptable.
County Parks Director Barbara Nugent says, meanwhile, that she sees advantages and disadvantages to extending Milam Road through the park.
The advantage is that the developer, in an attempt to minimize the degradation to the park that the extension of Milam would cause, has offered to donate 210 acres of open space to the park, almost doubling its present size.
"Some of the views from that 210 acres are stunning," Nugent said, "but, speaking strictly from my perspective as parks director, I'd prefer that the park remain intact. I've testified in the past against fragmenting land, and there aren't many intact tracts of forest left in Black Forest."
Nugent emphasized that the ultimate decision on the Milam Road extension lies with the Board of County Commissioners, and that resolution of the conflict promises to be difficult and complicated.
The Friends of Black Forest Regional Park is inviting the public to attend an hour-long meeting to discuss the issue at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 11, at the Black Forest Community Center at the corner of Black Forest and Shoup roads.