- Diane Billot
- Richard Bowles of the Teller County Independent Voter Coalition opposes private entry to public land.
The public paid for it, yet the public has hardly any access to it.
And now, just five years after Teller County acquired its only natural open-space property, the county's commissioners are talking about selling it, saying the county can't afford to keep it.
That property is Catamount Ranch, 1,320 pristine acres of conifer and aspen forest on the north slope of Pikes Peak that are home to elk, bears, mountain lions and the historical remains of old mining camps.
Five years ago, Teller County bought the ranch property in partnership with the state lottery-funded Great Outdoors Colorado and several private foundations. Together, the public agencies raised $1.1 million for a 680-acre parcel then owned by the YMCA of the Rockies, and another 640 adjacent acres that had been held in trust by the State Land Board.
Among the many local contributions was $3,300 raised by local elementary-school children. The county itself put up $294,000, much of it raised by selling county-owned office buildings.
Because of a conservation easement placed on the land, Catamount Ranch can never be developed, even if it is sold. That narrows the likely buyers down to essentially just one the similarly named Catamount Institute, a private, nonprofit environmental-research organization that owns the bordering property.
The institute already conducts field research at Catamount Ranch through an agreement with the county and has expressed interest in buying the land, though "no offer has been put on the table," said the institute's director, Colorado College Professor Howard Drossman.
Breach of trust
However, the potential sale raises questions about the implications of selling land purchased with GOCO funds, something that has never before been done. It also promises to be a hot-button issue in upcoming elections in the mountain county west of Colorado Springs. Opponents of the sale say it would violate the premises upon which the purchase was based that the public would own the land and enjoy access to it.
"It's a terrible breach of the public trust," charged Richard Bowles, a member of the Teller County Independent Voter Coalition, which was formed last year as a protest movement against increased mobile-home tax assessments but has since latched onto the open-space controversy.
Affiliated with neither of the two major political parties, the coalition plans to field candidates for several county offices.
Bowles, a Woodland Park marketing consultant, is running to replace Lucile Fehn, the only current county commissioner who was originally involved in the Catamount Ranch purchase. Fehn is leaving office due to term limits, while fellow Commissioners Jerry Bergeman and Clarke Becker are not up for re-election this year. All three county commissioners are Republicans.
No public access
Although Catamount Ranch was supposed to be acquired in part for the public's enjoyment, a deal struck by county officials to secure the purchase has, ironically, resulted in a restriction in public access to the property.
While raising the money for the property, the county partnered with the Catamount Institute, which agreed to purchase the eastern 177 acres of the old YMCA camp while the public acquired the remainder.
The problem was that the main access to the area, including the publicly owned portion, is Edlowe Road, which runs through the Catamount Institute's portion of the property. So, the county entered into an agreement that no public access would be allowed across the institute's property except for official maintenance and emergency purposes.
Meanwhile, the institute was guaranteed access to the county's land for education and research purposes.
Bowles blasts the agreement, pointing out that it gives a private entity free access to publicly owned land, while the public is shut out.
But the institute's director, Colorado College Professor Howard Drossman, said the land would never have been preserved in the first place if the institute hadn't put up more than $400,000 for its portion. He pointed out that the institute gives guided tours of Catamount Ranch once a month, for which it charges $6 per person, and it also uses the property for educational programs involving area schools.
Open space vs. office space
Without access from Edlowe Road, the county planned to work out another way for the public to get to its open space, via U.S. Forest Service land to the south or Colorado Springs Watershed property to the southeast. But so far, those efforts have been unsuccessful, said Kevin Tanski, the county's parks director.
And even if the efforts were to succeed, it would actually boost the county's incentive to get rid of the property, officials say.
The parks department currently spends $13,200 per year to maintain the property. If it were opened to the public, the cost of staffing and maintaining it could grow to as much as $66,000, Tanski estimates. The county's entire parks budget is just $158,000, most of which comes from state lottery proceeds.
In addition, like many other counties, Teller is facing a budget crunch. Given projected revenues, "We cannot sustainably manage this property," Tanski said.
At the same time, the county's long-term master plan calls for the construction of a multimillion-dollar county office complex in Divide. Fehn has suggested that with such major capital needs which also include a backlog of road repairs it may not be fiscally responsible to keep Catamount Ranch.
The commissioners in 1997 didn't foresee the current budget crunch, Fehn said. "We assumed that the economy would be better."
Even if the land is sold, that doesn't mean the purchase was a blunder, she said. It enabled the conservation easement, which will protect the land in perpetuity. "We bought it for the purpose of preserving it, and it has been preserved," Fehn said.
First of its kind
Fehn argued that because the county sold office space to fund the purchase, any revenues from selling Catamount Ranch should be set aside for future office-space needs.
But Bowles says that would be illegal. Under a voter-approved amendment to Colorado's constitution, state lottery revenue can only to be used for park, recreation and wildlife purposes. Using GOCO funds to buy open space, and then selling the land and spending the money on something else, constitutes "money laundering," Bowles charged.
GOCO spokeswoman Chris Leding said the dilemma is the first of its kind for the agency. The state agency, which pitched in $400,000 for the purchase, might require the county to refund the money under certain circumstances, she said. The foundations that also contributed money might make similar demands, making it unclear just how much sale revenue the county would realize.
However, Leding said the county may be allowed to keep the GOCO money if the land continues to be used "in the same fashion" and some public access is guaranteed.
"The access issue is the most important issue to us," Leding said.
Tanski said the land could be sold with a provision that guarantees some public access, and Drossman said the Catamount Institute might be open to that idea if it were to buy the property.
Fehn, meanwhile, said commissioners have made no decision yet about selling Catamount Ranch. The next step is to get the land appraised. A public process will take place before any decision is reached, she said.