The Norris-Penrose Event Center covers more than 60 acres and includes horse arenas, an exhibition hall, a stadium and hundreds of stalls. It's a big operation, overseen by the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo Foundation, whose roots date to the 1930s.
The foundation boasts some of the area's biggest historical names on its board, and has significantly upgraded the property in recent years. But its newest project has drawn city officials to the site like flies to manure.
In the last few months, 40,000 cubic yards of dirt — enough to cover seven football fields to a depth of three feet — have been hauled in to form a base for two new horse arenas. At the same time, that dirt has all but buried a city fire hydrant five feet below grade, created a water-quality threat, and perhaps raised the ground too close to utility lines above. And it's all been done, city officials say, without permits for grading and erosion control, and without Colorado Springs Utilities consultation.
"If the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment were to look at this, they would come unglued, because [center officials] don't have any water-quality mitigation whatsoever," says city stormwater manager Tim Mitros. "They've got erosion going right into the creek." He's referring to Bear Creek, which hugs the center's southern and eastern borders before it empties into Fountain Creek.
In response, Norris-Penrose officials say their work actually improves the site's drainage, and that they don't anticipate any problems with the city, or with keeping a full summer schedule at the event center.
"We're doing everything we can to correct this," says Rob Alexander, president of the foundation board. "We didn't mean to do this. Any permits that we'll need to get, we'll get those, absolutely. We're going to solve the problem and move on."
The foundation acquired the property at 1045 Lower Gold Camp Road, from the county in 2005 after commissioners decided the county couldn't afford to run it. Since then, the foundation has added banquet and meeting space, as well as other amenities used for hosting everything from horse shows to motocross racing to concerts.
To start hosting hunter-jumper horse competitions, officials brought in fill dirt and special materials north of the exhibition hall to create two new arenas. The project also made the hall longer.
Pikes Peak Regional Building Department spokesman Bob Croft says the center submitted a plan last August to enlarge the building by 14,400 square feet, and it was approved and a building permit issued. Inspections were done according to the rules, he says.
But other steps need to be taken.
"If you move more than 500 cubic yards [of dirt] or disturb more than an acre of property, you should get a permit for grading and erosion control," Mitros says, noting the state has a similar rule through its water quality division. "[Norris-Penrose] never did any engineering drawing whatsoever."
"My concern," Mitros continues, "is because the creek is very near the site, and there is drainage, if they don't mitigate the slopes, the flow from the slopes will go into Bear Creek and affect water quality, so something has to be done. We put them on notice they have to do corrective action."
Mitros says the city's rules for imposing penalties, though, are lax, so it's unclear whether the center will face punitive action.
As for the buried hydrant, Alexander says center workers talked to Utilities "from Day One" of the project about raising it. But Utilities spokesman Steve Berry says that's not true, "at least according to three people in line connections," the division that oversees water lines. And he says piling five feet of dirt over those lines could cause "maintenance challenges."
Berry says Utilities also worries that the new dirt has made overhead electric lines closer to the ground than they used to be. An investigation is underway to determine what, if anything, needs to be done there, he says.
What's more, a citizen snapped pictures of the hydrant before the fill dirt was brought in that show a hose attached but no meter, suggesting someone tapped the hydrant without paying for the water. Events center general manager Johnny Walker maintains that water usage was metered on the truck to which the hose was connected, but Berry says he's never heard of such a hookup.
Unauthorized use of water from hydrants is a city-wide problem for Utilities, Berry adds. "We have people turning a wrench on those hydrants, damaging the nuts or bonnets, and when it comes to a fire, [firefighters] can't access those hydrants or they're not working properly. And then there's the lost water and lost revenue."
Of course, the most immediate problem probably has to do with Bear Creek. Mitros says besides needing a state permit, the center might have to deal with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Mitros was to meet with a Nor'Wood Development Group construction expert on Tuesday, after the Independent's press deadline, because a Nor'Wood official sits on the foundation board and the company wants to help the center.
"We're going to try to get them on the right track," Mitros says, "because they have to follow the rules like everybody else."