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Topped out

Trails, open space and parks program falls short


Colorado Springs used TOPS funds to acquire - Red Rock Canyon in 2003.
  • Colorado Springs used TOPS funds to acquire Red Rock Canyon in 2003.

When the City of Colorado Springs acquired 787 acres of Red Rock Canyon through the Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) program in 2003, it was nothing short of magical, says Bill Koerner, the program's working committee chairman.

But the same program that has saved over 4,000 acres of open space also has had to forgo several key acquisitions that were outside of the city's financial reach, including most of the Houck Estate, a 700-acre area near the center of Colorado Springs that mostly has been developed.

According to a recent report created by the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department, rising land prices accompanied by escalating construction costs will significantly hinder the buying power of TOPS. The city will not be able to acquire half the open space areas prioritized in its 1997 master plan.

"Our dollars can go a lot less far than we thought they could," says Koerner.

TOPS generates approximately $6 million per year through a 0.1 percent sales tax. City voters initially passed the tax in 1997. In 2003, they voted to extend it until 2025. The city also acquires trails, parks and open spaces through the Conservation Trust Fund, the Parks Land Dedication Fund, Great Outdoors Colorado, developer contributions and land grants.

In tandem with the open space and trails master plans, the city hoped to acquire another 8,000 acres of open space and 127 miles of trail between 2007 and 2025. But new estimates from the report show that the city can afford just 2,000 acres of open space and 55 miles of trail before the tax runs out in 2025.

The revenue shortfall comes as no surprise to Dan Cleaveland, director of the advocacy group Trails and Open Space Coalition. According to Cleaveland, TOPS was created as a "tiny tax" to entice the city's anti-tax citizens to pass the measure.

"There was never going to be enough money," he says.

With the decrease in buying power, the city will reevaluate what it can afford each year. While $3 million can buy 157 acres of open space in 2008, by 2025 $6 million will buy only 66 acres of land.

"Land is appreciating really fast," Koerner acknowledges.

In 2003, for example, the city leased 640 acres from the Colorado State Land Board with the intention of buying it by 2010. The area is referred to as Section 16, just south of Red Rock Canyon.

Koerner says that if the city had purchased Section 16 five years ago, it might have cost two or three million dollars. Now, he estimates, it could be twice as expensive. But, he adds, the city will "look for miracles" to acquire the land.

"We are first in the door here and ultimately, by guess or by golly, we are going to do it," he says.

Paul Butcher, director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural services, will not disclose what the city expects to pay for Section 16.

Chris Lieber, Manager of the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services department, says the city has time to address the deficit before TOPS sunsets in 2025, warning that the more urgent issue with the TOPS shortfall is maintenance.

When TOPS was extended in 2003, funding for maintenance an estimated $400,000 a year was capped at 6 percent of the total annual revenue. But by 2010, the cost of maintenance will outweigh the revenue, according to the report, leaving the city with a scant four years to secure more maintenance dollars for TOPS areas.

"We need to use the money we do have as wisely and judiciously as we can," says Lieber.

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