Red Rock Canyon, a privately owned property long coveted by the City of Colorado Springs as an open-space preserve but threatened by potential development, might be saved under a deal signed last week between the landowner and a conservation group that's working with the City.
The Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization, announced it has secured an option to purchase the 787-acre foothills property, with the intention of reselling it to the City.
The property, bordered by Crystal Hills in Manitou Springs to the west, Highway 24 to the north, Section 16 to the south, and 26th and 31st streets to the east, has been characterized as "an extension of the Garden of the Gods," with spectacular sandstone formations, canyons, lakes, trails and wildlife. Its current owner is Joan Bock, whose late husband, John S. Bock, acquired most of the land along with his father, who came to the area in the 1920s.
"This is a big day for the Pikes Peak region," said Woody Beardsley, a project manager with the Trust for Public Lands' Colorado office, in Denver. "We are very encouraged that once all the pieces can be put together, that outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy an exciting new open-space park."
Acquiring Red Rock Canyon "has been a top priority" of the City for years, said Terry Putman, manager of the city's Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) program. "It's really exciting," he said of the option.
TOPS poster child
However, the option does not guarantee that the City will be able to obtain and preserve all of Red Rock Canyon. The Trust for Public Land had to act as an intermediary mainly because the City currently lacks the money to buy the property outright.
Though the parties would not disclose the purchase price stipulated in the option, the late John Bock reportedly wanted $15 million for his property, which he and his widow insisted on selling in one piece.
The City projects it will generate about $16 million in remaining sales taxes for open-space acquisitions over the next seven years through the tax that funds TOPS, which was approved by city voters in 1997 and expires in 2009. But some of that money will be needed for other projects, Putman said. And if the City does buy Red Rock Canyon, it will need to borrow money up front, adding interest to the cost.
On Dec. 10, the City Council will consider placing a referendum on April's ballot that would ask city voters whether to extend the TOPS sales tax through 2025. An extension would ensure the City has enough money to buy Red Rock Canyon, officials say.
The desire to save the area is likely to be a major selling point for the proposed extension, said City Councilman Ted Eastburn.
"I would fully expect Red Rock Canyon to be the poster child for the TOPS extension," Eastburn said.
If the TOPS tax is not extended, however, the city may seek out a partner to develop a portion of the property along Highway 24, to offset part of the purchase price.
Putman said the City will also seek grants and other funding from outside sources, including state lottery revenues from the Great Outdoors Colorado program. In addition, the nonprofit Red Rock Canyon Foundation will launch an effort to raise private donations to help with the acquisition.
Working out the details
The Trust for Public Land has a large revolving capital fund that it will use to purchase the land from Joan Bock, Beardsley said. The Trust can hold on to the property for as long as six to eight months, until the City works out how it will buy it, he said.
The Trust discussed the proposed arrangement with City Council members, behind closed doors, before closing the deal with Bock. Though the Council has made no decision on buying the property, members were supportive in those discussions, Beardsley said.
"We've had nothing but good feedback from the City," he said.
Councilman Eastburn also said there's broad support among council members to buy Red Rock Canyon.
"The desire is there to acquire it and secure it," Eastburn said. "It's a legacy from this era that we can pass on to the next generations."
Joan Bock, who lives on the property, said she was excited that the deal might preserve Red Rock Canyon.
"My husband and I always wanted to sell it to the City," Bock said. "We wanted to preserve the land, because it's so beautiful -- everybody should enjoy it."
Just a couple of years ago, however, Zydeco, a New Mexicobased developer, secured an option to purchase the property, with the intention of turning a major portion of it into luxury houses, a golf course and a resort.
"That was only because the City had never approached my husband" with an offer, Bock said.
The Zydeco deal eventually fell through when the company failed to work out its proposed development plans with the City.
A long way to go
The Trust for Public Land plans to spend the next few months studying Red Rock Canyon, which includes an old landfill, to determine if there are environmental issues that need to be taken into consideration when closing the deal.
The land, which is watched over by private security guards, will continue to be closed to the public until the City acquires it.
"We still have a long way to go," Beardsley said.
-- Terje Langeland