Sec. 16 purchase plan to council Sept. 28

       Section 16 could yet become part of the city's open space on the foothills above the Westside.
       A proposal to buy the 640-acre property from the State Land Board (SLB) for $3.8 million, using city open-space tax funds, is set for a City Council decision Tuesday, Sept. 28.
       The property - pristine except for a few well-used hiking trails - sits next to two other city open-space holdings (Red Rock Canyon and White Acres). Section 16 has been leased as open space by either the city or county for 30-some years, with trails connecting all three as well as nearby Bear Creek Park and Pike National Forest.
       The council date fits a careful timetable that would allow closing on the property to occur before the end of the year, according to Aimee Cox of City Parks.
       The issue is complicated by the SLB's desire to protect the separate mineral rights on the property. No final mineral dollar amount had been negotiated at press time, but Cox said she hopes to have a number for council by the 28th. Another issue is the property's status as a “stewardship trust” since 1998. Once intended to protect Section 16 from development, that designation now must be removed before a sale can occur, and this requires approval by four of the five SLB members.
       Any action taken by City Council in September could then be reviewed by the SLB at its monthly meeting in October, allowing time to work out all the related issues through December. On the other hand, if staff had “waited until we have a tidy package” - meaning all the issues worked out in advance - there would not have been time before Dec. 31 to get the necessary approvals from council and the SLB, Cox explained.
       The SLB owns various property sections around Colorado, with a mandate to use them to earn as much money as possible for state schools and institutions.
       The city has tried to buy Section 16 in the past, but its offering price (based on city-funded appraisals assuming no development) has been well below what SLB officials have thought the land was worth (based on SLB-funded appraisals assuming development could occur). In the six years before 2009, the SLB rejected three city purchase offers, according to past City Parks Development Manager Chris Lieber.
       After the last rejection in '09, Brownell Bailey, then the director of the SLB, had told the Westside Pioneer that if the city's lease expired before a purchase could be worked out, the SLB might fence the property to keep people out.
       But this year, as a result of state legislation sponsored by District 18 State Rep. Michael Merrifield, the SLB is now allowed to negotiate directly with a buyer on a parcel. This has helped the city and state work out the current price, according to Obee.
       Based on the amounts of past appraisals on both sides, $3.8 million is a little closer to the city's position than to the state's. About a year ago, the last time a city offer was rejected, the city appraisal had been $2.8 million, while the state saw a value greater than $5 million for Section 16, Lieber said at the time.
       The current proposal has already been approved without dissent by the city's Parks Board and, the week before that, the Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) Working Group.
       After that, the plan went before an executive session of City Council at its informal meeting Sept. 13. What happened there remains secret, but evidently there were no show-stoppers to prevent council giving it formal consideration Sept. 28.
       “It seems like a pretty good deal for the open-space program,” said Scot Hume, chair of the TOP Working Group, which oversees expenditures from the city's open- space tax. “It's great to be this close to making it happen.”
       Kent Obee, chair of the City Parks Board, had a similar take. “I don't think we're going to see a better price [than $3.8 million],” he said. Before direct negotiations were possible, “it was a time of immense frustration to everyone.”
       Having the deal wrapped up by year's end would simplify two financial matters related to Section 16, as follows:
  • The city's current lease on the property, covered by a five-year Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) grant, will expire in December. The rate now is $40,000 a year; the new rate, according to an interview with an SLB official last year, would jump to $156,000 a year.
  • GOCO, which gets its money from lottery funds, also has pledged $1 million to help the city with the purchase. That pledge expires in December as well (although GOCO has extended it previously).
           Other pledges have come from El Paso County ($200,000) and Manitou Springs ($10,000), with smaller amounts anticipated from the Trails and Open Space Coalition and the Intemann Trail Committee (ITC), Cox said.
           Also ready to help out is the Palmer Land Trust. A year and a half ago, when the TOPS fund was depleted (because of paying for White Acres and Corral Bluffs), the nonprofit agency had offered to raise $640,000 to assist with the Section 16 purchase. That shortfall no longer exists, according to Land Trust Executive Director Scott Campbell. However, the non-profit agency plans to help by fundraising for a conservation easement on the property, which is expected to cost $40,000. Such will “guarantee the permanent protection” of Section 16 from development,” Campbell said. “That's something I think everyone wants to see.”
           Obee's concern at this point is that the council vote could get politicized in an election year. Even though the money would come from the .01 percent TOPS sales tax, which is specifically dedicated to open space, “it's amazing how many people don't even know what TOPS is,” he said. “And one of the areas that City Council is sensitive to is spending money when they don't have money to spend.”

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