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Hung out to dry

Squeezed for water and land, a community struggles to survive


Thirty years ago, Rancho Colorado was envisioned as a - metropolis of 50,000 people. Today it remains a largely - waterless community of dirt roads and harsh landscapes, - from which many cant wait to leave. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Thirty years ago, Rancho Colorado was envisioned as a metropolis of 50,000 people. Today it remains a largely waterless community of dirt roads and harsh landscapes, from which many cant wait to leave.

On an early October afternoon, Don Stites heaves into his white Ford pickup truck with the green 425-gallon tank in the back and drives onto a dirt road, sticky with adhesive to keep down the dust. He follows the path that leads out of Rancho Colorado, the 14,700-acre stretch of brown grass and weeds sandwiched between Fort Carson and the southern El Paso County line, where he has lived for 10 years.

He passes the elevated landfill, which barrages his fence with used plastic bags in the windy months, and continues by the black tire graveyard and the shrine made of teddy bears and silk flowers, marking the spot where a child tumbled from a moving car and died two years ago. Just before the highway to Fountain, he takes a right at a broken concrete slab covered in "For Sale" signs and real estate pamphlets.

"Perfect for horse lovers. Plenty of room to roam." "Over six acres with no neighbors." "Outstanding mountain views!"

What the advertisements don't mention and what has beleaguered Stites for years is the water. Of Rancho's 264 households, fully a third are waterless.

This is one of Stites' final visits to the farmers' faucet, a long red hose attached to a wooden pole across the street from Fountain City Hall. When Fountain announced in 2003 that it would cut out-of-towners off last December, Rancho residents bought their last $200 water cards. Stites still has $80 on his card he and his wife, Carol, consume little water compared to the families and ranchers who ran out of credits months ago.

Stites uncaps his tank and eases the red tube inside. He slips his water card into the reader and counts out loud as he punches a green button. "One, two, three, four, five ..." Eighteen punches in total, for $4.25 worth of water. The price has gone up 1700 percent since he first hauled water 10 years ago. When he runs out of credits, he says, he will likely resort to delivery from an unreliable water carrier, a man known to skip visits and not call when his truck breaks down.

Don Stites fills his water tank at Fountains farmers - faucet. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Don Stites fills his water tank at Fountains farmers faucet.

"Hear that banging?" he asks, nodding to the popping sounds in the distance. He shakes the red tube to get the last drops into his tank. "That's Fort Carson."

In the past year, life in Rancho has settled into a thorny reality, in which both the military base and limited water access threaten the fragile community. Fountain's water freeze coincided with Fort Carson's recent move to create a buffer zone in Rancho's west end, a measure meant to preclude further development around the base.

And while Stites and many others have worked to bring roads, electricity and, soon, an elementary school and fire station to the area, many people in Rancho have decided that an already trying life has become just too difficult. A dozen of the Stites' neighbors have abandoned their homes, and the "For Sale" signs that dot the landscape signal another exodus.

Development stalled

At 71, Stites has hauled water from the Fountain farmers' faucet for a decade. He returns twice a week so he can fill the underground cistern in his yard, a pressure tank that flows water into the kitchen sink and bathtub, where he takes quick "G.I. showers" so as not to waste. He wears yellow-tinted, black-framed glasses and walks with a cane. He and Carol moved their mobile home onto their five acres in 1996, when they were Rancho's first and only residents.

They later attached a straw-bale structure to the outside of the house, creating a kitchen, bedrooms and a sky-colored annex for the Jacuzzi, which hasn't been used in recent weeks since water is no longer "plentiful and cheap."

Back in the early '70s, Stites was a salesman for the Ingersoll Republic Corporation. As he tells it, the company swept through Colorado Springs with a glossy TV presentation on a new development it named "Rancho Colorado." The sales office on Northpark Drive featured a wall-sized mural of Rancho's future, complete with lakes, golf courses, churches, schools, shops and a landing strip. Salesmen claimed the community would one day boast upward of 50,000 people, a relative metropolis impossible to imagine in 700-person Rancho today.

A power plant sits on the horizon, adjacent to a tire - graveyard and a landfill. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • A power plant sits on the horizon, adjacent to a tire graveyard and a landfill.

In 1972, a year after the land was subdivided, statewide zoning law changed to bar residential development in waterless areas. Under the new law, El Paso County commissioners would have never approved a community on earth made of arid 2,000-foot-thick shale. But Rancho was already underway.

Stites sold land to buyers in Colorado, Oklahoma and Florida, but it would be 25 years before he moved to the area as Rancho's first resident. Early development stalled, he says, when Fort Carson got involved.

Talk of a buffer zone surfaced in 1971, when Fort Carson fretted about encroaching residential growth on the outskirts of the base. And though the outpost never went through with it, Stites claims that the mere mention of a buffer zone scared Ingersoll Republic off, leaving the land in ragged five-acre lots with scratched-in "sales trails" and little else.

"Through negative publicity clear back in the '70s, Fort Carson had a very negative impact on the Rancho Colorado project, and it was responsible for hurting development drastically," he says. "Again, in recent years, it has started the same propaganda."

The latest incarnation of the buffer zone is a mile-and-a-half-wide stretch of property on Rancho's west end. After a 34-year hiatus, the military renewed its interest in the barrier when new developers began selling homes in subdivisions with names that spoke of homesteading dreams: Pioneer Village, Indian Village, Frontier Village, Valerosa Village and Villa Casitas.

Some of the new homes are hooked up to a water system by way of a pipeline that runs from the now-shuttered Pikes Peak Raceway to a neighborhood in Pueblo County. The conduit, which services stick-built homes in the northern part of Rancho, effectively has divided the area into well-to-do and hard-up, watered and waterless.

One more death blow

David Hays has lived in Rancho for three years. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • David Hays has lived in Rancho for three years.

In an effort to quell the growth, the military has secured a $7 million grant from the federal government to create a piecemeal buffer that rings around the Rancho property and into the base's southern and eastern sides. The Nature Conservancy is facilitating the deal, assisting two land-rich ranchers and a Rancho developer in selling their lots. The Rancho transaction, a two-phase process between the military and El Paso County, is halfway completed. A $2.8 million portion of the federal grant will go toward buying a total of 55 empty lots from Casa Builders, the same group that has control of the water system. To date, 15 lots have been sold. The land will eventually be turned over to El Paso County as open space.

"All the lights on the houses at night intrude on our capability to train at night," explains Tom Warren, the director of environmental compliance and management at Fort Carson. The zone, he adds, is also meant to keep the range's clatter the likes of which Stites heard all the way from the farmers' faucet out of earshot.

"If I can preclude development adjacent to the fence and monitor it and manage it and neither of those words is intended to have a negative connotation then Fort Carson can continue to accomplish its mission and, more importantly, private landowners can enjoy property rights without Fort Carson intruding on them," he says.

In February, Casa Builders entered into a "dry out" agreement with El Paso County, one step in a multi-phase process to stop construction in Rancho's west end. In the pact, the company promises not to provide water to any new residents who move to the zone. Most pre-existing homes are exempted from the dry-out.

Allen VanWyhe, a partner in Casa Builders, declines to comment on whether the exempted lots include the homes that use cisterns today.

In exchange for selling lots in the buffer zone, Casa Builders has worked with El Paso County to rezone the middle of Rancho, the area closest to the landfill. The new subdivision, made up of dense 2.5-acre lots, will be called El Dorado Village, and it will have water.

Despite Fort Carson's assurances to the contrary, some in Rancho say the Army wants to push them out. When the buffer zone was announced, rumors bounded through Rancho's west end, and many saw it as the end of water prospects altogether.

Carol Stites and her husband Don were Ranchos first - residents. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Carol Stites and her husband Don were Ranchos first residents.

"[It] created another reason why no one would be willing to spend money to put a pipeline in those homes," says Stites. "That was one more death blow to the individuals that happened to buy property in that area, which was not a buffer zone when they bought it."

Others thought the military would force them to leave. Some called Fort Carson and El Paso County, begging to sell their homes and land. But they were met with the same reply the military gave to another developer named Corkey Tomlin: We do not have enough money to buy you out. Wait. Maybe later.

Dozens pounded "For Sale" signs into the earth in front of their homes. Many, frustrated, just left.

"The water scare and the buffer zone scared the hell out of a bunch of people," says Tomlin, who sells mobile home and cistern packages for $60,000 to $100,000 in Rancho's west side. "They were wondering where their water was going to come from. They wondered if Fort Carson was going to kick them off. The people thought Fort Carson was going to come in and take their homes. So they moved."

The water freeze

The day that Connie and David Hays scoped out their seven acres in Rancho, the base's firing range was booming on the other side of the hill. As a Fort Carson veteran, David knew the rumbling would sometimes rattle the windows. But they bought anyway, moving from Colorado Springs to live in a camper trailer. They had no electricity for a month, and no phone for a year.

They hauled water for a time, like their neighbors did, and later transferred to a prefab modular home that was cemented to the earth.

Schoolchildren in Rancho are bused 20 miles away. Next - fall, they will attend Ranchos first elementary school. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Schoolchildren in Rancho are bused 20 miles away. Next fall, they will attend Ranchos first elementary school.

Fort Carson knitted the buffer zone above their heads just two years after they arrived in Rancho they are one of about 100 homes in the zone. Since then, they say, their property value has plummeted by $23,000.

"Basically, the way it was put to us was, "There's nothing you can do about it,'" says David, who works 18-hour days driving a dump truck in Colorado Springs.

Connie and David have seen their neighbors abandon their homes, leaving quietly in the middle of the night. But they say they won't depart Indian Village, where the limited water access has thrown them as much as the buffer zone.

For all of Rancho's tribulations, Connie can not go back to the "ant hill," as she calls Colorado Springs, where she could smell her neighbor's cooking at night as cars thumping with rap music sped down the block.

"At night here, I can hear the coyotes sing," she says. "There is privacy, peace and quiet. I don't feel so cooped up, and I don't feel like I'm in danger. If there is a strange car that comes by, everyone is watching it."

Connie, 58, has a round face framed by wavy gray hair. She wears her green beaded moccasins around the house, which she decorates with silk flowers she can't afford the water to plant live ones.

When Corkey Tomlin sold Connie and David their land, he told them about the Fountain farmers' faucet. It was an easy enough fix for people on cisterns: just a 10-mile drive from Rancho, and a single quarter got you a week's worth of water. But that was before Fountain halted out-of-towners from accessing the pump.

Connie Hays says she wont leave her home in the buffer - zone, even though some of her neighbors have. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Connie Hays says she wont leave her home in the buffer zone, even though some of her neighbors have.

The Hays and many others in Rancho are bewildered by Fountain's decision to cut them off. Talk of the moratorium began in 2003, when southern Colorado endured a vicious drought. Fountain swapped the old cash vending machine at the farmers' faucet for a card reader, and the City Council voted unanimously to bar out-of-towners from using the new setup. Rancho households could add $200 per month to their cards until the final cutoff on Dec. 31, 2005.

"If [others use] the water we have, then we have to go buy new water," Fountain utility director Larry Patterson explains. "New customers pay for that in the price of their house. In order to keep those rates down, we wanted to utilize the current water we owned."

But former Fountain Mayor Ken Barela concedes that the water freeze had less to do with a Fountain shortage than with the public's ideas about water ownership.

"The perception was that we were going to be sucking wind, and, "You are taking our water away from us.' People may not have realized that we were in good shape. Even if they knew we had tons of water, it is irrelevant because it is their water."

Rancho residents became suspicious that the military was behind the water freeze, especially because the buffer zone landed only one month before the cutoff. But Warren claims that the timing is pure coincidence.

"Individuals have a sole responsibility when they buy a piece of property," he says. "It's called "buyer beware'. You don't buy a piece of land unless you really want to, knowing that there is no water on it. It is like buying a car without wheels."

A drop in the bucket

Connie dehydrates her vegetables to avoid shopping - often. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Connie dehydrates her vegetables to avoid shopping often.

A year before the cutoff, County Commissioner Dennis Hisey, newly sworn into office, began hunting for water for his constituents in Rancho. He went to four public and private water sources, but each turned him down, citing myriad obstacles. Transporting water could be a liability. Moving water from one district to another was risky. Changing the old water decree was impossible. Hisey looked into the county's water reserves it would cost half a million dollars to dig a well for Rancho residents.

"The sad thing is, we are just not talking about that much water ... it is a drop in the bucket," he says. "The best conservation program is to make people haul it. They use half the amount of water that city people use."

Hisey says the Fountain farmers' faucet was often beat up with use jammed with quarters or ripped apart when a patron didn't take the hose out of the tank before driving off. The maintenance issues, he says, may have contributed to the decision to cut off water. And those issues didn't help when it came to fighting stereotypes about Rancho people.

"They think the people who live out there want to get away or don't want to be found," he says. "They could be antisocial, or they could be doing illegal activity."

He remembers the Rancho theft ring that was uncovered two years ago, when seven people buried stolen cars and trailers one full of $129,000 worth in dinosaur bones in a ravine at Hoss Point, not far from the Hays' home.

"Obviously if you move down there, you don't need a lot of human interaction," says Hisey.

Connie, for instance, goes to Fountain's Wal-Mart to grocery shop only on the rarest occasions. On a late September afternoon, she slices the onions that she bought in bulk and dehydrates them in the refrigerator shed next to her home, a small shingled shack with a black silhouette of a farmer, which she painted using David as a stencil. The onion slices, which tang the air around her home, take a full day to dry. They'll soon join the 12 dehydrated bell peppers and eight pounds of carrots stuffed into old mayonnaise and Kerr jars in her kitchen cabinet.

Many in Rancho depend on water delivery thats known - to be unreliable. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Many in Rancho depend on water delivery thats known to be unreliable.

In the coming months, she will toss handfuls of them into boiling water and watch as they bloom into vegetables again. For now, they are shriveled bits of red and orange, dried out like the rest of Rancho.

Dicey delivery

One of Casa Builders' new stick-built homes, on a five-acre lot with full water service, goes for between $220,000 and $250,000. VanWyhe says he would consider putting other Rancho residents on the pipeline if they would organize to make it worth his while.

"If we had a group of them that we could get together, then it makes economic sense to run the line over to them," he says, adding that his tap fee is a steep $11,000. "We only have so much water available, and we have to have enough to provide for people that have already bought lots. We promise [new home buyers], "If you buy a lot, we will be able to provide you with water.'

"There were a few people that thought it was the county's responsibility to bring them water," he says of some of the waterless households. "That is called doing your due diligence before you buy."

Since the cutoff, Connie and David have sold 60 goats that they kept back when the farmers' faucet was open. Connie still has four llamas; the fifth died when he impaled himself jumping over a fence. The only real flowers she keeps grow wild outside the llama pen: small yellow sunflowers she uses to lure the animals outside the paddock.

The Hays get their water by way of infrequent trips to the Fountain farmers' faucet and visits from a water delivery man, who trucks an elephant-sized urn into Rancho several times a day. He snakes around the homes on Rancho's west end and locks a wide rubber hose into the receptacles a thousand gallons at a time for a fee of $40, a price four times as high as the current rate at the farmers' faucet. The Hays promised their water man that they would not talk about him he may or may not be transporting water illegally. And if he gets shut down, so do they.

But Connie and David are not going anywhere. On the day Fort Carson announced the buffer zone, they erected a red trellis on the walkway leading up to their home.

"It's our statement that we are staying," says Connie. "If I have to go into town and buy water a gallon at a time, I will be here. This is my home."

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