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Residents fight north-end development


Opponents of a 347-home subdivision on the far north end of the city vowed to take their fight to higher authorities after the Colorado Springs City Council voted unanimously to approve the project earlier this week.

"They didn't listen to a thing we had to say," development critic Jerry Thompson said of the Council members who voted for the project.

"We are not opposed to development, but this project as proposed is going to block the only wildlife corridor left in the northern part of the city."

An activist with the Northgate Open Space Committee, a group of neighbors opposing the project, Thompson had appealed to City Council to revoke an earlier approval of the project by the Colorado Springs Planning Commission.

Thompson said his group will now take its case to higher authorities -- federal and state agencies that oversee wetlands and endangered species, as well as state courts -- in an effort to fight the proposed development.

The group contends that the second phase of the proposal, presented by Colorado Springs-based Pilocan, would also effectively cut in half the Smith Creek Valley, an important hangout for elk, deer and fox as well as waterfowl such as herons.

But Stephen L. Sharkey, vice president of Pilocan, rejects that claim. "The area in Phase 2 that's being developed is very much outside the riparian corridor, which is the primary corridor for wildlife," he said.

Pilocan plans to build 347 single-family homes on 137 acres just north of Northgate Road, but also plans to set aside an additional 90 acres for open space along the sensitive Smith Creek.

But critics say that to get around the second phase of the project, deer and elk would have to take a meandering path across a creek and a road and along a narrow ridge to pass safely under an I-25 overpass.

Sharkey said his company has done more than enough to provide for both wildlife and the visual concerns of neighbors. The 90-acre set aside along Smith Creek is "three times more than is required" by the city-approved master plan for the Northgate area, Sharkey noted. The plan calls for 30 acres to be left for open space.

And in addition, Sharkey noted, Pilocan has left 28 acres of open space in small pockets within the development.

But critics say the portion of Northgate Hills that would be developed is still far too crowded with homes. Much of the land surrounding the proposed development is zoned in five- and 10-acre lots, which opponents said allow elk and deer to move easily through the area.

The critics want the developer to lower the density or scale of the project's second phase to allow wildlife easier passage.

In the portion of property to be developed, Sharkey has proposed building an average of 4.3 homes per acre. But Sharkey said that density average is considerably lower when the 90 acres of open-space set aside is factored in. "We're on the extreme low end of the densities allowed in the master plan [for the Northgate area]," he said.

Thompson was skeptical. He said that much of the land dedicated to open space could not have been developed anyway, because it's either floodplain or wetlands.

But Sharkey disputed that claim, saying that wetlands can indeed be developed if builders compensate for the damage by creating wetlands or making other habitat and drainage "mitigations."

Critics add there are other reasons why it's important to preserve more of the parcel. The land within the proposed development -- including the 90 acres to be set aside as open space -- was identified by the city's Trails and Open Space committee as a priority area for preservation.

The highly dense second phase of the project would severely compromise the remaining land's value as open space. If more of the land can be preserved, Thompson said, local landowners have pledged to donate an additional 20 acres of open space to the effort.

But Sharkey hinted that won't be needed. "It's true that some people who are used to looking out at land from their porches will see a few houses, but the critical areas are being protected."

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