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Conservation easement, master plan update for Bear Creek Regional Park

       A 2˝-year effort to preserve Bear Creek Regional Park in perpetuity has reached its desired conclusion.
       The Board of El Paso County Commissioners approved a conservation easement Dec. 16 for the 545-acre property that
The Bear Creek Regional Park tennis courts south of Argus Boulevard often get heavy use, as seen in this photo from 2011. In the new park master plan, needed court repairs are on the capital improvement list for 2018, if funding is available.
Westside Pioneer file photo
straddles South 21st Street.
       A conservation easement is a permanent legal agreement that restricts the use of a property. In the case of Bear Creek, which consists of recreational and open space, it would ensure that the land could never be sold for commercial uses such as oil drilling or housing development.
       The easement is part of an updated Bear Creek Regional Park master plan, which the commissioners separately approved at the same meeting. The website link is adm.elpasoco.com/CommunityServices/planning/Pages/BearCreekRegional ParkPlanning.aspx. Replacing its 2008 predecessor, the new Master Plan allows the continuation of existing park uses - the easement does not prevent that - and includes recommended upgrades to many of them. A five-year program calls for the following capital improvements, “if funding is available”:
       - Pavilion roof replacements - $25,000 in 2015 and $25,000 in 2016.
       - Tennis court repairs - $110,000 in 2018.
       - Bear Creek Nature Center exhibits - $150,000 in 2016.
       - Park upgrades - $150,000 in 2017 (includes parking lot curbs, gutters, and paving of Lot #1 at Bear Creek Terrace North, along with erosion/road repairs throughout the park).
       The master plan stipulates that any future improvements in Bear Creek “must be consistent with” the requirements for three geographical zones established by the conservation easement.
       The easement will be held by the nonprofit Palmer Land Trust, which started on the Westside in the late 1970s and specializes in land preservation. A total of $17,500 was needed to cover the Land Trust's costs, and a private fundraising
A map from the updated Bear Creek Park Master Plan shows the three zones created by the conservation easement. As explained in greater detail in the accompanying article, each color-coded zone on the map represents a different level of park usage (active, passive and mixed).
Courtesy of El Paso County Community Services
campaign raised $20,000 in all, according to County Commissioner Sallie Clark, a Westsider and one of the easement-effort leaders.
       The Bear Creek zones are defined as follows in the master plan:
       - Zone 1 ("passive-use areas") - allows trails, benches, interpretive signage, and wildlife viewing.
       - Zone 2 ("mixed-use areas") - improvements limited to 10 percent of total acreage and may include picnic facilities, pavilions, playgrounds, parking, kiosks, interpretive signage and access roads.
       - Zone 3 ("active-use areas"): allows roads, parking lots, trailheads, trails, nature centers, dog parks, gardens, permitted athletic facilities, pavilions and park-support facilities.
       Previously, the county has put conservation easements on 25 percent of the 6,000 acres it owns, a parks official has said. But this is the first time an easement has been added to an existing county property.
       The concern arose for Bear Creek Park in 2008, when a tight budget led to a county staff suggestion that selling the park could add about $14 million in revenues. No commissioners championed that idea, but it left many park supporters fearful of what could happen.
       “Many assume that our parks and open spaces will remain accessible and undeveloped forever, but that isn't always the case,” reads a statement from the Palmer Land Trust. “In fact, many of the public properties that Palmer Land Trust conserves have had serious development threats, including Bear Creek Regional Park, Red Rock Canyon Open Space, and Ute Valley Gateway Open Space. The only way to save these open spaces for recreational use is with a conservation easement.”
       The "forever" aspect does have an exception, however. As explained at a previous meeting, the federal government has the authority to use condemnation to end an easement, if such a need were ever identified.
       Both the master plan and easement details were worked out by county officials meeting with citizens.
       “We really appreciate the many residents who have worked on the committees, attended the public meetings and responded to the survey to help our dedicated County Parks staff develop a master plan for the park that respects our past, preserves our open space and meets the needs of future generations of park users,” Clark said.
       At the initial Bear Creek easement meeting (in May 2012), an attendee asked why the county could not just have a vote of the people to say the land should be preserved. The county answer was that an election would cost more than an easement; also, a public vote now could be overcome by a reverse vote in the future, so the protection would be less permanent than an easement.

Westside Pioneer article
(Posted 12/23/14; Outdoors: City/County Parks)

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