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Outsider

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Big Johnson! What a great name for a reservoir, especially one that holds such fond memories for your columnist.

As a teenager in the '50s, I went to Fountain Valley School, then a dumping ground for troublesome boys whose parents could afford to stick 'em in boarding school. It was then (and is now) an extraordinarily good school, full of smart, difficult kids and bright, quirky, caring adults.

The winter of '55 saw an extraordinary cold snap in early December, with no snow, no wind and below-zero temperatures for several days. Big Johnson, scarcely a mile from the school, froze sufficiently to allow ice-skating. And this was no ordinary ice; it was black ice, perfectly level, rock-hard, shimmering in the cold, flat December light.

I vividly remember lacing up my skates, taking a few tentative strides and, finding a rhythm, flying joyfully across the ice with my friends over this perfect mirrored surface. Until the weather changed, we spent every free daylight hour on that vast outdoor rink in endless games of pickup hockey. ... We may have been self-absorbed adolescents, but we all knew that it was a special time in our lives.

That's why last fall's news that the City, Fountain Valley School and the state would be joining together to preserve thousands of acres around the reservoir was so welcome.

I imagined some future winter, where hundreds of kids could have the same special experience that I had a half a century ago. And that's why Cara DeGette's revelation, in last week's Independent, that the City had not acquired the land immediately contiguous to the reservoir, and that the owners of said land have every intention of developing it, was so distressing.

Naturally, the City's spin machine immediately went into high gear. According to a memo sent to Council, the water department has a long-term lease that allows them to veto any development (true, if long-term means eight years!). Also, it's only a "narrow strip of land" around the reservoir (true, if the definition of a "narrow strip" is a depth of six hundred feet -- the equivalent of two football fields! -- equaling an area of 130-plus acres).

Well, what's done is done. If I were in the market for a luxo home, Waterview Lake Estates at Big Johnson sounds unbelievably great. Who wouldn't want a home on a lake, surrounded by thousands of acres of never-to-be-developed open space, with your own private dock and a spectacular view of the Peak?

And if the City thinks that the County Commissioners are going to prevent the land's owners from developing it, simply because they were smart and the City was stupid ... I somehow doubt it!

There will be consequences. The most obvious consequence is that the City, by spending $8.1 million to acquire what turns out to be an unremarkable chunk of prairie, got snookered. Had Council known that the purchase didn't include the land around the reservoir, they might have gone for Red Rock Canyon instead.

With the reservoir, there's merit in the acquisition; with a gated community ringing it, there's none, particularly compared to Red Rock Canyon.

It's also hard to believe that potential open-space partners such as Great Outdoors Colorado, the Trust for Public Lands, or the Nature Conservancy are going to be eager to work with the City in the future. I'm sure that GOCO is none too delighted that their money was used, in effect, to enhance the value of an upscale development.

But the real question is this: Will City Council simply sweep this mess under the table and just pretend that it didn't happen? Or will a couple of the veterans join with the three feisty newcomers and actually hold someone responsible?

It's hard to imagine a screw-up of this magnitude taking place when Bob Isaac ran the show. I can imagine him growling, "Has anybody talked to the damn ditch company? How much ground do they own, anyway?" Did Council members believe that the City's purchase would prevent development along the reservoir's shores, even if the City didn't own the land right up to the water's edge?

Either they were misled, or they knowingly signed off on an exceptionally stupid deal.

Presuming that Council was misinformed or misled, what will they do? Will they just give City Manager Jim Mullen a pat on the back and another bonus? Will the administration manage to weasel out of this one (as in "mistakes were made, but ..."), or will Big Jim finally head on down the highway?

One way or another, we will see -- and now, the obvious and irresistible bon mot -- who truly has the big johnson ...

-- jhazlehurst@csindy.com

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