It's an unlikely locale for a wildlife refuge -- in the middle of the city, surrounded by commercial properties and apartment buildings. But the Red Wing Sanctuary, an 18-acre undisturbed island in a sea of sprawl, is surprisingly full of creatures.
A half-hour walk through the sanctuary, southwest of Academy Boulevard and Pikes Peak Avenue, reveals just a few of its inhabitants. A pair of red foxes scurry along a creek; their nearby den is easy to spot. A red-tailed hawk ascends off a cottonwood branch as a group of humans approach, and songbirds flitter around in the dense brush.
"You never know what you're going to see," says Deb Tomim, president of the Aiken Audubon Society, which has owned the sanctuary since the late Hildegard Potts deeded it to the group in 1981. "This is really a beautiful spot."
While the sanctuary itself is protected, the development that has occurred around it in recent decades has caused continuous changes in the flow of Spring Creek, which runs through the sanctuary. The changes have upset the sanctuary's delicate wetlands ecosystem. Red wing blackbirds, for which the sanctuary was named, are no longer found here because the marshes where they nested have dried out.
More recently, however, as nearby areas have become almost fully developed, the water flow in the creek has stabilized, allowing wildlife to recover slowly. The Audubon Society has counted more than 60 different bird species on the property and estimates there are more than 100.
Now, a proposed new development could alter the water flow once again, disrupting the wildlife recovery, Audubon members say. The last untouched property adjacent to the sanctuary, a narrow, 16-acre strip to the west, is slated for a housing subdivision. The property's owners, local developers Rice & Rice and the GM&O Group, have applied to the City Planning Commission to develop up to 81 residential lots there, which would require rezoning to allow for greater density.
The developers plan to name their subdivision Audubon Springs. The Audubon Society is not flattered. The society says that under the current development proposal, a significant amount of water runoff would end up in Spring Creek upstream of the sanctuary.
City planning staff share the group's concerns. "Any additional drainage into this wildlife sanctuary from this proposed development would further degrade the Aiken Audubon wetlands," wrote Paul Tice, a city planner, in a presentation to the Planning Commission.
And that's just one of many problems with the proposed development. Tice found that the proposal failed to meet seven out of 12 standard requirements for rezoning. It had significantly inadequate provisions for access, drainage, buffering and landscaping, he reported.
As proposed, "this project would not result in a community benefit but rather would be destined to become an undesirable place to live and would have adverse impacts on the surrounding residential and commercial properties," Tice wrote.
The Park Hill Neighborhood Association, representing nearby residents, agrees, saying the density of the new development would add to already worrisome levels of traffic and crime in the area.
Rejecting the city planning staff's recommendations that the residential development be rejected for a number of reasons, on Jan. 3 the Colorado Springs Planning Commission approved the new project. As for the concern of city staff and the surrounding residents, the commission directed Tice to try to work out the practical problems with the developer and return with a new presentation within 60 days.
Members of the Commission said they didn't feel the problems identified by Tice were insurmountable. In fact, though the project has been in the pipeline for three years, staff only began raising objections a few months ago, after the Audubon Society and the neighborhood association became involved, said Commissioner Steve Shuttleworth. "The fact of the matter is, staff had no problem with the entire development up until 90 days ago," said Shuttleworth, a real-estate broker.
City code specifies that when seeking rezoning, a developer must demonstrate that the proposal will benefit the community. But Shuttleworth said he believes the burden should be on staff to demonstrate why it won't. "In order for staff to say, 'You can't do that,' you have to show the reason why."
Since the process had dragged on for so long, commissioners wanted to "give the applicant something," said Commissioner Val Snider. "We wanted to give the guy a chance to make some progress."
Commissioner Steve Obering said he didn't feel the Commission went against staff.
"As I recall, we did exactly what staff wanted," Obering said. The commission agreed to the rezoning, he said, because "we felt that the current zone didn't make any sense."
"The Planning Commission definitely went against my recommendation," Tice said, adding he plans to follow the commission's directive.
While recent meetings with neighbors did help staff identify some additional issues, concerns about crucial matters such as access had been raised from the very beginning, Tice maintained.
Shuttleworth, meanwhile, said he didn't recall concerns being raised about wildlife at the Red Wing Sanctuary.
"There is no impending danger to the Audubon sanctuary from this development," Shuttleworth said, though he subsequently modified his statement, saying, "Anytime you build anywhere, there's an impact on wildlife."
The Audubon Society and the Park Hill Neighborhood Association are appealing the rezoning, and both the rezoning and the overall development proposal are subject to final approval by the City Council.
"We're not opposed to development," said Stan Bixler of the neighborhood association. However, he said he's afraid that the City won't make the developers comply with code, resulting in a project that does more harm than good.
"The City just wants to give them all kinds of waivers," Bixler said.