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Red Rock Canyon Plan Unveiled

$12.5-million proposal would protect most of open-space area

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The City of Colorado Springs would spend approximately $12.5 million to purchase the entire 789-acre Red Rock Canyon and preserve most of it as open space, under a proposal announced Wednesday.

The plan is expected to go before the City Council next Tuesday, pending a recommendation by the city's Parks Advisory Board this Thursday.

If the Council gives a green light, the city parks department would proceed to try and finalize the deal to buy the long-coveted open space, south of Highway 24 between Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs. The final purchase agreement, which could take months to hammer out, would still require another council vote.

Under the proposal, the majority of Red Rock Canyon would be purchased through the city's Trails, Open Space and Parks program (TOPS), which is funded by a 0.1-percent sales tax that city residents recently voted to extend through the year 2025.

City staff members have been negotiating the proposed deal for months with the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation group that holds an option to buy the property from its private owner, Joan Bock. The deal was announced at a meeting of the TOPS Working Committee, which voted unanimously in its favor.

"I think it's a wonderful plan," said Terry Putman, the city's TOPS manager.

Described as an "extension of the Garden of the Gods," Red Rock Canyon contains scenic sandstone formations as well as trails, lakes and abundant wildlife.

However, it also contains an old landfill, a handful of houses and 18 mobile homes. Those areas, along with existing city plans to extend 31st Street across the eastern edge of the property to Gold Camp Road sometime in the future, have caused challenges in developing a preservation plan.

By law, TOPS money can only be used to buy open space -- which means that if the city were to buy the entire property using only such funds, all uses other than open space would be permanently excluded -- including the 31st Street extension.

Under the proposal unveiled Wednesday, the city would spend $11.1 million in TOPS money to purchase 653 acres outright for open space. A 53-acre landfill on the site, which would be fenced off and monitored indefinitely for potential environmental hazards, would be purchased for $1. However, the city would need to buy an insurance policy for the landfill at a cost of up to $500,000.

The remaining 83 acres -- a 44-acre housing area along Highway 24, another 13-acre housing area, and a 26-acre set-aside for the 31st Street extension -- would be purchased with $1.4 million in state lottery funds. The parks department receives about $3.4 million per year in such funds.

By using lottery funds, the city would have flexibility in deciding what to do with the 83 acres, Putman said.

Other than Joan Bock, all the people who now live at Red Rock Canyon are tenants. Those tenants would be relocated, though officials promised to treat tenants "fairly" and help them find new homes.

"We guarantee they won't be evicted," Putman said.

The city would use certificates of participation, a sometimes-controversial borrowing mechanism, to finance the purchase. Putman said it's not yet clear how much interest would add to the cost of the deal, because the length and interest rates of the loans have not yet been determined.

Another uncertainty is whether the TOPS sales-tax extension will survive a lawsuit filed by local anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce, who is challenging the legality of the recent extension vote.

Putman said the Red Rock Canyon purchase should be possible for the city even if Bruce's lawsuit were to succeed. In that case, however, Red Rock Canyon "will be all that we do from now on," Putman said.

-- Terje Langeland

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