A developer who proposed carving a road through a wooded park would be laughed out of town in just about every other county in Colorado -- except El Paso.
At least that is what opponents claim in reference to developer Dan Potter's plan to bulldoze a road through the Black Forest Regional Park. This week, Potter's opponents were joined in solidarity by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG), which named the parkland and its proposed nearby upscale residential homes as one of the 10 worst development plans in its annual statewide 2001 Sprawl of Shame awards.
"This is an important example of local citizens getting the shaft," said Rob Gavrell, project director of CoPIRG's Sprawl Action Center.
"[The Black Forest Park plan] exemplifies the way local citizens don't want the community to grow the way it is growing, and are hard-pressed to stop it when the developer sure has plenty of money.
"It's not an ideal situation."
The Denver-based consumer and environmental group identified Potter's plan as one of the state's worst 10 a week before it unveils eight other development projects throughout Colorado that they claim are poorly planned and have negative impacts on open space and traffic congestion.
Racing to approve
CoPIRG targeted the Black Forest project this week, in part, because the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners is meeting today to decide whether to allow a rezoning request that would result in the proposed road being built.
Potter's King's Deer Development Corporation wants to build the road to access its proposed upscale subdivision -- called Cathedral Pines -- on an 800-acre parcel of land that abuts the northern edge of the park.
After the county Planning Commission approved the plan in May, residents living nearby filed a lawsuit. They claim that the road would violate a federal statute -- the Sisk Act. That law requires land that is deeded by the U.S. Forest Service to county agencies can only be used for the purposes it was being used before being deeded over.
When El Paso County accepted the land from the federal government in 1999, it termed the heavily wooded regional park northwest of Colorado Springs as one of the "crown jewels" of its park system.
The court case is scheduled to be heard on Aug. 13. However, the county is proceeding with today's public hearing and vote by the Board of County Commissioners.
Gavrell called the county's decision to proceed -- before the court case is resolved -- particularly egregious and seemingly spiteful.
"It's more than just bad planning -- here we have a county government racing to approve a project. Our view is they shouldn't be voting on this thing at all while a lawsuit is pending."
Not here to play nice
County Attorney Michael Lucas said, however, that King's Deer developer Dan Potter has complied with all of the procedural requirements and has the right to a public hearing before the county commissioners. Delaying the hearing, Lucas said, could potentially invite a lawsuit from the developer.
"The common sense argument would be [to delay] but we could get sued for depriving an applicant -- you pick your poison," he said. "We're not going to treat this land owner any different than any other."
Lucas, who represents the county in the lawsuit filed by Black Forest residents, believes that the road through the park would benefit not only the developer, but the county parks department as well. The road, he said, would provide fire breaks, help control invasive mistletoe plants and, when paved, reduce fugitive dust.
He rejects the Black Forest group's claims that the county is flirting with a violation of federal law, and denounced their tactics.
"As far as I'm concerned, anybody who sues the county is menacing -- this would not be considered a friendly piece of litigation and we're not here to play nice," Lucas said. "We're going to court and that's great, regardless of what happens Thursday."
Power and money
This week, County Commissioner Tom Huffman said he has no idea how he will vote on the rezoning that would allow the upscale housing development to move forward.
Huffman said he has received dozens of letters and phone calls from supporters and opponents, and has toured the property with his four elected commissioner colleagues. However, the commissioner maintains that he has not met with any of the players -- either the opponents or the developer.
"I couldn't pick the developer out of a line up," he said. "I'm trying to be as neutral as I can."
But to CoPIRG's Gavrell, such ambivalence suggests a clear example of what is wrong statewide -- officials who, too often bow to wealthy developers' clout and money rather than insisting that the line must be drawn to separate bad plans from good.
"It's clear that when people care about a place it's important for our elected officials to take care of that place -- not to make sure a developer is taken care of instead," Gavrell said.
"Every poll shows growth and traffic issues are the hottest issues for our citizens -- it's obvious the state and our local leaders need to make sure they take meaningful stands."
The El Paso County Board of Commissioners will consider the Black Forest Regional Park today, Thursday, July 26, beginning at 9 a.m. at the County Administration Building, 27 E. Vermijo Ave.