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Counting Votes

Narrow passage predicted for compromise view-protection ordinance



A proposed city ordinance to protect the endangered view of Pikes Peak from the Pioneers Museum downtown could be headed for a close vote, after surviving what backers characterized as an attempt to quietly bury it this week.

In an informal session Monday, the City Council told planning staff to keep working on a regulation that would limit the height of future buildings in the "view corridor" from the museum toward the mountains.

Nonetheless, some council members expressed misgivings about the proposed regulation. Mayor Lionel Rivera, who was on vacation and did not attend the meeting, outright opposes it.

"I frankly don't think that we need a view-corridor ordinance," Rivera said in a recent interview.

Backers of the ordinance, however, said they believe they can get the five votes required to pass it.

Closed policy review

The proposed view-protection ordinance was sparked by the controversial plans of the El Paso County Board of Commissioners to expand the County Courthouse. The commissioners have said they want to build a courthouse annex on the plaza between the existing courthouse and the Sheriff's Office, which would likely block the scenic view of Pikes Peak from the museum's front steps.

The commissioners' plan sparked an uproar when it was made public last year and was one of the reasons why a group of citizen activists launched an attempt to recall two county commissioners. The recall attempt ultimately failed.

At the urging of several citizen groups, the City Council directed planning staff in March to develop an ordinance that would protect the view from the 100-year-old museum building. But that directive was reconsidered Monday at Rivera's request.

Rivera said he simply wanted the matter brought back to the table because the Council has five new members following April's election. "They haven't had a chance to hear from staff" about the ordinance, Rivera said Tuesday.

But Walter Lawson, an activist representing several of the organizations backing the ordinance, accused the mayor of trying to overturn the previous Council's direction without a proper public process. Lawson said no public comments were originally going to be solicited at Monday's meeting, until he contacted Rivera and was allowed to make a brief presentation.

"It's a substantial policy review that's not being appropriately done," Lawson charged.

Though the Council ultimately agreed that staff should keep working on the ordinance, Councilman Larry Small suggested he might not vote to actually adopt it. Existing ordinances give the City Council all the power it needs to approve or reject the proposed courthouse expansion, he maintained, echoing an argument made repeatedly by Rivera.

Councilman Scott Hente also said the Council wouldn't "rubber stamp" whatever the planning staff ends up recommending.

Councilman Charles Wingate, who also opposed the ordinance, resigned from the Council Tuesday. However, five "yes" votes will still be required for approval. Council members Richard Skorman, Jerry Heimlicher, Margaret Radford and Tom Gallagher have all said they back the ordinance, while Councilman Randy Purvis -- the likely swing vote -- expressed lukewarm support Monday.

Save the plaza

Even if the ordinance were to pass, it would be a compromise. The view-protection measures being developed would still allow the county to expand the courthouse on the plaza, though the expansion would be limited in height.

Lawson, who said the plaza itself should also be preserved, urged the Council to adopt a more restrictive view ordinance that would in effect prevent any expansion on the site. However, Vice Mayor Richard Skorman was the only council member backing that option.

The ordinance is scheduled for consideration by the city Planning Commission on June 5. The county is expected to submit its plans for the courthouse expansion in the fall.

-- Terje Langeland

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