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Activists continue fight for Red Rock Canyon


Just west of Colorado Springs along Highway 24, Red Rock Canyon is a sweep of sandstone formations and wildlife-filled meadows similar to Garden of the Gods.

Unlike the preserved and beloved nearby park, Red Rock Canyon will probably one day be a tangle of offices, upscale homes, an 18-hole golf course and one developer's vision of bucolic Tuscany in modern-day Colorado Springs.

Zydeco, a land development company based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has the Canyon under contract with plans to build a high density hotel/resort complex with an 18-hole golf course, an office/retail complex, large estates, townhouses, condos and multi-family housing.

"Beyond our scope"

Until recently, hopes were high to save the 787-acre property from development.

It was one of the 18 properties targeted for acquisition by taxpayer-approved Trails Open Space and Parks (TOPS) funds in the Colorado Springs Open Space Plan.

Dave Andrew, chairman of the nine-member TOPS working committee that recommends how the open space money should be spent, said the group "really wanted Red Rock Canyon."

"But the $15 million price tag was beyond our scope," he said. "We couldn't justify spending that much on a single purchase."

Politics played a role, too. City Councilman Richard Skorman said that large chunks of TOPS money had just been spent to purchase the 306-acre Myron Stratton property and the 1,680-acre J.L. Ranch, both located on the west side of town.

Sentiment was strong among members of the council, he said, that TOPS funds needed to be spread more equitably around various parts of the city.

The most threatened parcels -- which will soon need to be preserved or risk being lost forever to development -- are along the western portion of the city, however. But Councilwoman Linda Barley, in particular, has argued that TOPS money also needs to be spent in the southeast and northeast parts of the city.

While Council and the TOPS working committee debated, Zydeco put the Red Rock Canyon property under contract.

Development, though, is not a lock. The company still has several significant problems to resolve.

Former dump site

For one, the site contains a 90-acre dump that operated until 1987. Tons of hazardous refuse, including car batteries and refrigerators, are buried there. The site presently leaks methane gas.

The property's owner, John Bock, claims the site was "sealed, covered and seeded in complete conformity with state regulations and requirements," but independent tests have yet to confirm that.

Large portions of the proposed golf course would lie atop the dump site. According to Richard Yates of Zydeco, the dump would be lined with clay with sod would be placed atop that. The former dump site would be put under the care of a separate company.

There are also concerns that the septic system of a trailer court on a corner of the property could have leaked for years and might require expensive cleanup.

Drilling rigs have been seen on the property in recent weeks testing for contamination.

Annexation questions

Getting water and electric power to the property, meanwhile, will require annexation by either Colorado Springs or Manitou Springs.

Both cities have expressed interest, and they could end up competing for the right to annex, and subsequently could reap lucrative property taxes.

"We would absolutely entertain the possibility," said Colorado Springs Planning Director Quinn Peitz. He suggested, though, that preservation concerns should outweigh economic considerations should the city opt to annex.

"There are portions of that property that warrant development," he said, "but it's also in our long-term economic interests to preserve parts of the canyon."

Peitz said he has not discussed annexation with Zydeco, and that the firm has not submitted a development plan.

Zydeco, though, may prefer annexation by Manitou Springs. Unlike Colorado Springs, Manitou does not have a Hillside Overlay Ordinance, which would allow a higher-density development.

Manitou Springs Mayor Nancy Hankin said Zydeco representative Richard Yates has been holding "very preliminary" conversations with city staff and researching water and infrastructure questions linked to annexation.

No proposal for annexation has been submitted, she said. "We're certainly interested in looking at anything Mr. Yates proposes, but we need to see details and crunch numbers. We need to know a lot more."

The battle continues

Open space activists have not given up, meanwhile, trying to preserve as much of the canyon as possible. Rugged terrain prevents some of the property from being developed and activists hope as much as half of the property can be left as open space.

Terry Putman, planning manager of Parks and Recreation for the city, said he has been in near-weekly communication with Zydeco about purchasing corridors along the eastern and western sides of the Canyon that would connect it to Section 16 and Bear Creek Regional Park.

"They've expressed willingness to sell undeveloped portions of the property to us," he said, "but there's nothing to discuss until they settle on a development plan."

It hasn't been lost on some open-space activists who have worked to preserve the Canyon that Zydeco's motives for selling property to the city might be less than altruistic. Such a sale would significantly reduce development costs.

Some, like Bill Steinhour, feel uneasy that Zydeco is asking the city to pay top dollar for land it wouldn't be able to develop anyway.

The Red Rock Canyon Committee, a citizens' group formed to preserve the Canyon as open space, has continued collecting signatures -- they've collected over 6,000 to date -- with hopes of preserving the property after all.

"This property is a jewel," said committee chairperson Denise DeLeo, "and it breaks my heart we let it get away. We haven't given up, though. The deal hasn't closed, and even if it does, we want to preserve as much of what remains as possible."

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