At the request of Colorado Springs Councilman Ted Eastburn, City Manager Jim Mullen has ordered a complete report of how his staff recommended and subsequently purchased an $8.1 million parcel of open space that could become little more than a tall grass prairie buffer for an upscale, gated, waterfront development around Big Johnson Reservoir.
When the City Council approved the Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) taxpayer-funded purchase last Aug. 22, city leaders extolled it because they claimed it would forever protect the prime waterfowl and wildlife area surrounding the Big Johnson Reservoir southeast of Colorado Springs.
But the Fountain Mutual Irrigation Company, which owns the reservoir and an estimated 130 to 200 acres immediately surrounding it, is entertaining bids from as many as 10 developers who envision lakefront projects at Big Johnson.
Fountain Mutual is considering selling the property to help pay for a needed $3 million to $5 million dredging of the reservoir to increase water capacity, said Dick Janitell, president of the company's board of directors.
One proposal called Waterview Lake Estates, envisioned by developer Dan Tibbetts, would be an upscale, gated community of lakefront three- and four-story homes at the water's edge. The project, still in its planning stages, promises innumerable amenities including water sports, private docks and lasting protection -- thanks to the city -- with a permanent open-space buffer that would protect their "little piece of heaven" from future surrounding development.
"We sure think it would be a neat little spot; it's certainly pretty with the ducks and the geese out there," said Tibbetts, a partner in Legendary Homes.
Too many problems
But Councilman Richard Skorman believes that the hurdles any potential developers would face trying to build at the reservoir could be insurmountable. Last Friday, Skorman said he had no prior understanding that the land around the Big Johnson Reservoir could be a target for development when he joined a unanimous Council in approving the purchase.
But Skorman believes that the soil around the reservoir might be too soft to sustain development, the water quality too poor, that the area is in an undesirable airplane flyover zone and that the dam of the reservoir might require expensive improvements. Any development project, noted Skorman, would require a zoning change (the land is currently zoned agricultural) which would require approval from the Board of County Commissioners.
In addition, Skorman pointed out that the city utilities department currently holds a lease agreement with the Fountain Mutual, due to expire in 5 1/2 years, that would hamper the developers' short-term prospects.
However, Janitell noted that there is nothing in the lease agreement that prohibits development around the lake, and said the company could begin dredging the reservoir as soon as this year.
Other City Council members have complained that they, like Skorman, were unaware of any development possibilities when they approved the TOPS purchase.
Councilman Ted Eastburn is demanding to know why, if city staff knew about the possibility the property could be developed, the City Council was not informed when weighing the decision to approve the purchase, which constitutes well over a year's worth of TOPS sales tax--generated open-space funds.
Eastburn wants answers
In a memo dated Friday, May 25 and obtained by the Independent, Eastburn indicated "[It's] highly unlikely I would have voted to purchase the property if I had known shoreline development was an option."
Specifically, Eastburn wants to know the extent to which the City applied due diligence regarding development opportunities.
In the memo, addressed to Paul Butcher, the manager of the city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department which oversees the TOPS funds, Eastburn launched a multitude of questions he wants answered. Among the queries: Did staff understand this? Were contingency plans made? What involvement did Colorado Springs Utilities have in reviewing the purchase since they held a lease? What was city attorney's office's involvement? Were they aware of any of this on the front end?
"Please review the coordination of the various [city, county and state] agencies involved (or lack thereof), real-estate, parks, TOPS committee, [Colorado Springs Utilities], city attorney, board of county commissioners, state, private contiguous land owners, etc.," Eastburn requested. "If indeed staff was on top of all of this, why wasn't council fully advised?"
In the event that Colorado Springs cannot stop a development from occurring around the reservoir, Eastburn suggested that the City should ask voters -- as would be required by the TOPS sales tax mandate -- to approve the sale of the land, at a possible profit, and use the money to buy a more desirable open-space parcel.
Lastly, Eastburn wants to know what lessons have been learned in a process that allowed the City to buy land designated for open-space preservation in the county government's jurisdiction.
"This raises the issue of use of city taxpayer dollars for purchase of open space in the county without council say in contiguous land use decisions," Eastburn wrote.
Caught by surprise
Though the memo was directed to Butcher, City Manager Jim Mullen responded to Eastburn in a Monday, May 28 e-mail. In that communique, Mullen insisted that all inquiries related to the Big Johnson purchase be made through him.
"Their (sic) are legitimate questions that need to be answered and Paul [Butcher] will be doing a report for me on that whole issue," Mullen wrote. "I assure you if there is any followup to be had on the matter I will take the appropriate action with the staff."
On Tuesday, Mullen, through a secretary, referred all questions to Butcher.
The parks manager said that at the time of the purchase, no one considered that the lakefront would ever be developed. City representatives, he said, met with Janitell and he informed them that the land was not for sale.
"When he told us the land was not for sale, from our perspective that was the end of the conversation," Butcher said.
Butcher said his department was surprised when they learned that development proposals are being circulated.
However, Butcher and Terry Putman, who directly oversees the TOPS acquisition projects, defended the purchase of the Big Johnson open space -- regardless of any possible future development at the shoreline.
In a May 22 memo to Butcher that in part explains the rationale of the Big Johnson sale, Putman said, "Although the proximity of the reservoir was a bonus, it was not the reason the property was purchased."
In the memo, Putman suggested that the issue was not really related to TOPS, but one that the city's Water Resources Department should handle. Still, he said, he would research the matter.
It was "very surprising to receive a copy of the brochure offering lots for sale," Putman wrote.
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