City Council OKs Sec. 16 purchase
Approval from State Land Board commissioners still needed to finalize deal on 640-acre parcel
Colorado Springs City Council unanimously approved the purchase of Section 16 as open space at its formal meeting Sept. 29.
The State Land Board (SLB), which owns the undeveloped, 640-acre, mountainside property, still needs to give a final sign-off, but 11th-hour opposition by its five commissioners to a plan their staff helped negotiate was not suggested as a likelihood in city staffer Aimee Cox's presentation to council.
There is support even from the governor's office, as indicated by comments to council from Doug Robotham of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. He said he hoped there could be a purchase “celebration” in November, when the SLB's commissioners are scheduled to meet in Colorado Springs.
The city's goal is to close on the property by the end of this year. For nearly 40 years the property, which sits in the midst of designated untouchable parcels such as Red Rock Canyon and Bear Creek Park, has been leased as open space by either the county (1972-2003) or city (2004-present). Thousands of recreationists a year use the acreage, and volunteers maintain the trail system - chiefly the Palmer-Red Rock Loop and Intemann trails - at virtually no cost to the city, according to Cox.
She also extolled the virtues of Section 16's geology (“massive outcrops of Pikes Peak granite [and] best local exposure of dinosaur bones”), plant life (more than 300 species, including two that are “state-sensitive”) and wildlife (including more than 200 species of birds and 20 of mammals).
Under the plan, the city would be required to pay the state $3.8 million for the property's surface rights, plus $321,000 to keep the state from exercising its subsurface mining rights on 53 “extractable” acres for the next 99 years. Other purchase-related expenses are $40,000 for a privately held conservation easement that will ensure the surface is never developed and $20,000 for miscellaneous city costs in implementing the purchase.
The city will pay the bulk of the $4,181,000 total cost from funds raised through the voter-approved Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) tax, but will get $1,253,500 in help from public and private entities. One million of that will come from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), in a grant offer that will expire after this year.
Another reason to close on the deal before January is that the city's other grant from GOCO, which has been paying for the lease, also expires after this year. Such wouldn't have been an issue in the earlier years of the lease, when the bill was $640 a year, or even as recently as eight years ago, when it was $3,200. But in the past decade, evidently trying to live up to its constitutional mandate to make designated state-owned land sections benefit schools, the SLB has upped the rate drastically, reaching $40,000 a year during the last five years. If the city wanted to continue the lease after this year, the annual bill would jump to $156,000, an SLB official has said.
The $40,000 easement is an initiative by the nonprofit Palmer Land Trust, to ensure that the surface rights never get developed - just in case a council majority some day decided to sell the land. In fundraising to gather that amount, the Land Trust has already been awarded a $20,000 grant that can now be matched by other donations, Amanda Hill of Palmer happily told council.
City Councilmember Sean Paige had some concerns about the potential for mining in 99 years, but Cox said that the agreement will include conditions giving the city the right to meet the highest development offer - should there be one 99 years from now - and thus keep the land secure. In addition, the Palmer Land Trust easement “includes a defense fund if we have to duke this out in 99 years,” Cox said.
She added that the value of the mining possibilities on the property - specifically on 53 of its acres - was set by the SLB. The city has since hired its own consultant, who confirmed that the $321,000 the SLB attached to the mineral value was appropriate.
Paige also questioned what would happen if the Land Trust went out of business, and was told that it's written into the easement that another private entity could take it over.
Referencing a “family connection” to the volunteer-built Intemann Trail, City Councilmember Randy Purvis made the motion to approve the purchase plan. (His wife Robin was formerly married to trail namesake Paul Intemann, who died in an auto accident in 1986.) Purvis noted that loss of views is often crucial in land development issues around the city, but Section 16 is so visible “it can be seen from practically anywhere in the community and many parts of El Paso County.”
Mayor Lionel Rivera added the point that when voters approved the TOPS .1 percent sales tax in 1997, Section 16 was the “poster child” because supporters remembered how it narrowly evaded a development proposal in the mid-'90s.
Before the purchase plan went to council, both the city's TOPS Working Group and Parks Advisory Board had unanimously recommended approval.
Kent Obee, chair of the Parks Board; and Dan Cleveland, former director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition, told council how pleased they were to see the purchase nearing apparent finality after years of trying to bring it about. Several times in the past, the city has made an offer to the SLB only to have it rejected.
Westside Pioneer article