Beset by an 18-month losing streak in its attempts to build a resort hotel, 240-acre golf course and an array of commercial and residential units in Red Rock Canyon, Zydeco president Richard Yates said on Tuesday that his company no longer seeks Colorado Springs to annex the property.
Blaming widespread public opposition to his old plans, Yates said he plans to build only luxury homes on 35-acre lots because that option frees him from needing approval from Colorado Springs or El Paso County.
Zydeoc's relation to the public at large has become so embattled and contentious that city officials urged the developer to hire a nonprofit mediation organization to take over its "information sharing process."
On Tuesday, mediator Steve Charbonneau of Longmont-based Community Mediation Concepts facilitated three meetings on behalf of Zydeco that included selected officials from Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs and a variety of open-space advocates.
The meetings were originally slated for the city administration building, but Zydeco moved them to the offices of its local lawyer, Bruce Warren, when the city said that meetings held at City Hall must be open to the public.
Zydeco planner Tom Kay told the Independent on Monday afternoon that the meetings would be "invitation only" and closed to the press. That, however, proved untrue. An Indy reporter on hand to cover one meeting was turned away, but Zydeco admitted a reporter from The Gazette.
Asked about this Wednesday morning, Kay said The Gazette reporter was welcome because that paper has reported in more favorable fashion on plans to develop the canyon.
A number of those who attended the Tuesday meetings voiced skepticism after the meetings. Manitou Springs resident and former state Rep. Marcy Morrison said she saw the meetings as "a cat-and-mouse game."
"Essentially," she said, "It was Mr. Yates throwing down the gauntlet. He said he's tired of 'wrangling cats' and intends to go the 35-acre route to avoid the public process that annexation would require."
Yates told those at Tuesday's meetings that he hopes to start building the houses next spring. And, he said, he's reached the point where he's willing to discuss his project only with the mayors of Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, said open-space advocate Don Ellis. To Morrison, Yates' comment suggests how frustrated Zydeco is with what she called "the new development climate."
"The political environment has changed drastically in recent years," she said. "Growth has become a volatile issue and there's a lot less sympathy toward development than formerly. I think that political reality has hit Mr. Yates between the eyes.
"Mr. Yates implied to us that that he's leaving the door open to alternatives, but he'll deal only with a body that's in 100 percent, unanimous agreement. Otherwise, he's doing the 35-acre thing, period."
Joe Fabeck, president of the Red Rock Canyon Committee, a citizens group trying to preserve as much of the canyon as possible as public open space, also viewed Tuesday's meetings as a maneuver to make project opponents "play ball."
"Yates is in a box," Fabeck surmised. "He can't make the project work with 35-acre lots. Eighty acres are landfill and a hundred acres are zoned manufacturing. That leaves 600 acres, not all of it buildable, which leaves room for maybe 15 lots. Given that the price tag of the property is $15 million, and given that he has to build the houses and put in infrastructure, he'll have to charge at least $1.5 million per lot. When was the last time you bought a $1.5 million lot?"
Scott Flora of the Trails and Open Space Coalition said many of the people he's spoken to consider 35-acre lots without a resort hotel and golf course preferable to anything else Zydeco has proposed to date.
"What I'd most like to see," he said, "is a compromise wherein Zydeco would develop closest to Highway 24 and leave the rest as public open space."
The biggest hurdle
What could be the biggest hurdle facing Zydeco was barely touched on Tuesday. The company reported that an environmental assessment of the property has been completed, and hinted that the results are worse than anticipated. Zydeco refused, however, to say what the results were.
John Himmelreich, a local geologist who helped design the Red Rock Canyon landfill expansion and closure in the 1980s, said, "In the end, it's the environmental issues that will make or break this project. Zydeco is dancing around the issue of environmental liability.
"Who," he wondered, "is going to assume final liability for environmental problems? Who's going to monitor, maintain and clean up problems? I seriously doubt the millionaires buying these homes will agree to accept that liability."