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City, Zydeco in Poker Game over Red Rock Canyon 

click to enlarge "Things are starting to move." Assistant County Planner Carl Schueler. - CREIGHTON SMITH
  • Creighton Smith
  • "Things are starting to move."

    Assistant County Planner Carl Schueler.

The Santa Fe--based developer that wants to build a golf course and sell multimillion-dollar luxury estate sites in the highly visible Red Rock Canyon, has thrown the latest chip in what is turning into a high stakes poker game with the City over the canyon's fate.

Last week the developer began promoting the upscale project just west of Colorado Springs on billboards strategically placed at 8th Street and 31st Street along Highway 24. Representatives from Zydeco also scheduled a private pre-application meeting this week with the County assistant director of planning Carl Schueler.

"This is the first serious step in the development process," Schueler said. "Things are starting to move."

Zydeco's local spokesman Tom Kay declined to comment on recent developments this week. A number of open-space advocates maintain, however, that Zydeco's latest moves are more strategic than substantive. They note that it remains in Zydeco's financial interests to have its 787-acre property annexed by the City of Colorado Springs because that eventuality would give the developer access to badly needed city utilities, water in particular.

Annexation talks stalled earlier this spring when the developer and the City couldn't agree on how much of the Red Rock acreage Zydeco should sell to the City for preservation of open space. Zydeco offered 245 acres, but the City wants up to twice that amount.

Open-space advocates are interpreting the new billboards, accordingly, as a last-ditch move on Zydeco's part to jumpstart the long stalled annexation negotiations with the City.

This week, development opponent Joe Fabeck asked, "How likely is it that people who can afford a couple million bucks for luxury estate sites will see billboards located on 8th and 31st Streets? The purpose of those billboards is to catch the attention of the City of Colorado Springs, not millionaire clients." Fabeck is president of the Red Rock Canyon Committee, a citizens' group formed to preserve the canyon as open space,

Kent Obee, a member of the city's Trails Open Space and Parks (TOPS) working committee, agreed. "Those billboards are a message to the City that if you want to save Red Rock Canyon, you'd better play ball with us, and quick.'"


The game so far

Red Rock Canyon, in unincorporated El Paso County, is a stunningly scenic geologic extension of Garden of the Gods. Open-space advocates are agitating to save the property, which was put under contract by Zydeco in 1999.

Zydeco's original plans for the property included a 600-room hotel and 240-acre golf course, 512,000 square feet of retail space, 1.39 million square feet of office space, 700 apartments, 800 single-family units and 60 luxury estates.

In March 2000, Zydeco asked the City of Manitou Springs to consider annexing the property, which would double the city's tax base and cut Zydeco's costs considerably. The bid was so unpopular with the Manitou citizenry, however, that the City Council eventually adopted an ordinance requiring annexations larger than three acres to be put to a citywide vote.

With annexation by Manitou no longer in the cards, Zydeco filed for annexation by Colorado Springs. Zydeco sweetened its bid for annexation by offering to sell the City 245 acres for open-space preservation. The TOPS working committee was highly critical of the offer, however, arguing that 245 acres wasn't nearly enough and that the acreage offered was among the least desirable for preservation.

Zydeco subsequently abandoned its bid for annexation and opted instead for a vastly scaled-down development plan that includes a 75-acre golf course and up to 26 "estate sites." The high-end 35-acre sites would carry price tags of $1 million to $2 million apiece. A development of that low a density frees Zydeco from needing Colorado Springs or El Paso County approval.

The move, however, raises the question as to how Zydeco will get the water it needs for development.

Hence, the poker game: It is to Zydeco's enormous advantage to have its property annexed by Colorado Springs, and the City would love to purchase a significant chunk of the canyon property for preservation as open space.


The hands being played

In recent weeks, Zydeco launched a Web site advertising its new, still-to-be-approved posh development project at www.RedRockReserve.com, claiming site tours will begin this coming September, with parcels going on sale in March.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking. Two months ago, Colorado Springs Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace and City Councilman Richard Skorman met privately in May with Zydeco president Richard Yates.

"Our only intent was to re-open dialogue and see if Yates was open to possibilities other than the 35-acre estate route," said Makepeace.

Skorman and Makepeace insist nothing was decided at that meeting and no further discussions were scheduled. Neither party has spoken to Yates since then. "We hope he'll approach us soon," said Skorman this week. "Maybe we can figure something out."

City Parks Department TOPS manager Terry Putman said he's had no recent communication with Zydeco, either.

"I'm still optimistic we can work something out," he said. However, Putman said nothing has transpired or been said by Zydeco to prompt that optimism.

Still, TOPS member Obee suggested, "We can double the size of Garden of the Gods if we play our cards right here. For it to happen, though, Zydeco is going to have to sell the City a lot more acreage than its been willing to do so far, and it's going to have to include the red rock features.

"If we don't play our cards right, though, Red Rock Canyon is gone."

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