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Red Rock Reversal

Despite promises, City may develop portion of open space



When Colorado Springs voters approved an extension of TOPS -- the city's trails, open-space and parks sales tax -- many may have thought they were voting for the city to buy and preserve Red Rock Canyon, a scenic 787-acre foothills property, in its entirety.

The property between Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, with spectacular sandstone formations, canyons, lakes, trails and wildlife, was labeled the "poster child" for the TOPS campaign. Without the sales-tax extension, the city wouldn't be able to buy Red Rock Canyon outright from its current owner, Joan Bock, and would have to find a partner to develop a portion of it, TOPS backers said.

If the extension were approved, however, the city would be able to cover the entire price tag, believed to be about $15 million.

"That was really what we were campaigning on," said City Councilman Richard Skorman, a backer of the extension.

Strong base of support

But now, despite the approval of the tax, which will also be used to buy other open-space parcels and for trails and parks, Skorman and others say the city may still seek a Red Rock Canyon development partner to help offset the city's acquisition costs.

"There's been all kinds of partnerships talked about," Skorman said. "There's talk about ball fields, a rec center. There may be an affordable-housing partnership that works for the city."

Though TOPS backers may have pushed one vision of Red Rock Canyon's future, the ultimate decision will rest with the City Council. Council has five new members, and Skorman will recuse himself from the decision-making process because he has worked for the Trust for Public Land, an organization that is helping the city make the purchase.

Kent Obee, chairman of the city's TOPS Working Committee, conceded TOPS backers had made an "implicit promise" during the extension campaign that Red Rock Canyon would be bought outright.

"That's still a possibility," Obee said. "There's a strong base of support for buying the whole thing."

But as discussions get under way in the working committee, the city Parks Board and the City Council, "almost everything is on the table," he said.

Must move quickly

If officials decide to develop any portion of the property, it would most likely be the front portion that faces Highway 24, Obee said.

"I think what the city would probably do is buy most of it," Obee said.

Terry Putman, manager of the TOPS program, said he'd like to see all of the property preserved. "That's the desire of most of the community." Thanks to the TOPS extension, that's still an option, he noted.

City officials will need to move quickly on the issue. The Trust for Public Land, a national conservation group, holds an option to buy Red Rock Canyon, with the intent of re-selling it to the city. That option, however, expires in just two weeks.

Doug Robotham, director of the Trust's Colorado office, say the option could be extended to give the city sufficient time to decide what it wants to do. Nonetheless, the Trust needs the city to move expeditiously, he said.

Robotham said consultants hired by the Trust to do an environmental assessment of the property -- which includes an old landfill -- have not discovered any big problems so far. "It's going very well," he said.

Even once the city acquires Red Rock Canyon, it could be several years before it's opened to the public, Putman said. Trails and other infrastructure will need to be in place to support public use, he said.

Terje Langeland

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