Public meeting to mull easement plan for Bear Creek Regional Park

       Four years ago, when El Paso County ran into a budget crisis, one of the staff-offered options for monetary savings was selling park land.

An El Paso County Parks illustration shows the various current uses of the Bear Creek Regional Park. The numbers (1-8) refer to picnic pavilions. A meeting scheduled Tuesday, May 22 will discuss the possibilities for a conservation easement to protect the 573-acre property from ever being sold for development.
Courtesy of El Paso County Parks

       “I never said that,” County Commissioner Sallie Clark pointed out in an interview this week.
       Following through on an opposite initiative, Clark said she has been talking with the Palmer Land Trust and the Trails and Open Space Coalition for several months about a plan to place a conservation easement on areas of the county's Bear Creek Regional Park to ensure that such a sale never happens.
       The park is in District 3, which she represents. Its 573 acres, spreading east and west of 21st Street, include the Bear Creek Nature Center, Dog Park, pavilions, soccer fields, tennis courts, archery area, playgrounds, restrooms, community garden, undeveloped areas and several miles of trails.
       A public meeting to discuss easement possibilities will be at the Bear Creek Nature Center, 245 Bear Creek Road, Tuesday, May 22 at 6:30 p.m.

Ken Pals (foreground, left) of El Paso County Parks gives a presentation on insects during the first-time Great Parks Festival Sept. 24 of last year in Bear Creek Regional Park. An estimated 1,100 people attended the free event, which offered a range of activities, presentations and demonstrations, chiefly in the developed areas of the park on either side of 21st Street.
Westside Pioneer photo

       “The meeting will include information on the conservation easement process, estimated expenses, fundraising opportunities and potential next steps,” a county press release states.
       Additionally, Clark said, there will be information about phasing options and different levels of easements, with County Public Services Director Tim Wolken making a presentation.
       No commissioner board, four years ago or since then, has ever taken action that would lead to selling any of its parks. However, Clark believes it's better not to leave the matter to chance. She noted that some county parks, such as Fox Run, already “have long-term preservation in place.”
       Bear Creek is not protected that way because it is an older park and such considerations did not arise when it was originally designated, Clark explained.
       “I feel very passionate about this park,” she said. “It's a pretty important piece to a bigger pie, counting city and state park land next to it. I want to make sure that when I go on to do something else or there's another board, that there is long-term stability with these public lands, that people can count on this being public open space for the long term.”
       Another issue is the type of easement. “We don't want to preclude ourselves from improving our parks facilities by being too restrictive,” Clark said. “So this has to be approached very methodically and carefully. This is the beginning of the public process on this.”
       An unavoidable aspect of placing easements is the cost. That's why fundraising is part of the strategy. Legally the county can't hold easements on its own property - “it would be like the fox guarding the henhouse,” Clark commented.
       The Palmer Land Trust, a non-profit entity that works for preservation of quality open lands in southeastern Colorado, has traditionally been the entity local governments turn to for easements. A recent example was the city's Section 16 purchase in 2010. But such actions are not inexpensive. For example, the easement on Section 16's 640 acres cost $40,000, an amount that the Trust accumulated through fundraising of its own.
       Clark said she does not yet have a solid cost for placing easements in Bear Creek Park and in any case felt that it is best not to release estimates before the meeting.
       Fundraising and/or the pursuit of grants would be needed because she doubts that the current Board of Commissioners would approve covering any easement costs from the county's general fund.

Westside Pioneer article