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Grave situation



A hulking oil rig in the middle of a cemetery?

That won't happen, but the Veterans Administration had to do some bargaining after officials discovered that surface and drilling rights had been leased at the leading site for Colorado's third veterans cemetery.

"That gives the lessee the right to come on the land at any time and set up an oil rig and start drilling," says Kelli Witt, VA realty specialist. "We can't have people coming on the land and setting up oil rigs."

The Kane Ranch, just off Squirrel Creek Road east of Fountain, isn't far from where Ultra Resources of Houston has obtained permits to drill. Witt says Ultra doesn't hold the Kane lease, and won't say who does.

"We've negotiated an amicable solution," Witt says, hinting that the drilling might go beneath cemetery land from a rig next door to the property. "We haven't inked it yet, because there's this water issue."

And it's a whopper.

Because the VA is barred by law from paying for off-site improvements, several entities are working on a plan to absorb the $1 million cost of extending a water line from the nearest water provider — Widefield Water and Sanitation District. Security Water and Sanitation District also is helping with the deal, and the city of Fountain will provide the 120 to 350 acre feet per year the 200-acre cemetery will need. (Each acre foot is 325,851 gallons, or enough for three or four families per year.)

"Fountain's got the water," Fountain Mayor Jeri Howells says. "We've been through water court."

Although Fountain could extend the line, Howells says having Widefield do it will save $800,000 of the original $1.8 million estimate. Howells says she's been told a fund-raising drive will help.

Meanwhile, the VA has ordered a water study not only of Kane Ranch, but also other sites in El Paso County, Witt says. Though Witt wouldn't reveal the other sites, one is rumored to be east of Colorado Springs and north of Falcon High School.

State Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, doesn't like that idea.

"I worked for [former U.S. Rep.] John Salazar when he was working on this piece of legislation," he says. "There was a handshake agreement to put it between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. The handshake agreement would not be upheld if it's northeast or north of Colorado Springs."

Pace says he's heard the VA's favored option lies north of Colorado Springs. "There's already one up north near Denver," he says, referring to Fort Logan National Cemetery. The other VA cemetery is Fort Lyon National Cemetery, outside Las Animas.

"I'm sure if the VA wanted to put it outside the city of Pueblo, we could work on the water connection," Pace says. "I'm not saying delay it for delay's sake, but there is irrigated land between Colorado Springs and Pueblo."

County Commissioner Dennis Hisey, who represents the Fountain Valley, says the county is a partner because it owns the land, which the Kanes willed the county for open space purposes. Should another site be chosen, Hisey says the land might become a park eventually. For now, "We probably would keep leasing it to the guy running cattle on it."

Witt says the VA hopes to have site acquisition complete by year's end.

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