Frustrated with the City Council's apparent willingness to embrace a massive development that would double the size of their town, residents of Manitou Springs have launched two petition drives to kill the proposal.
For the past several months, the city government has been working with Santa Fe-based developer Zydeco on a plan that would annex the nearby 787-acre Red Rock Canyon property.
But tensions have mounted among residents of the town of 5,000, who say the proposal would destroy the character of the town.
Last week, Manitou resident Rick Laurenzi submitted a petition to the City Clerk's office that, if approved, would require all property annexations to be put to a vote of the people.
"I didn't have to knock on a single door to get 400 signatures," he said. "All I did was make a couple of hand-painted signs bearing the wording of my referendum and park my car at various locales around Manitou. You should have seen people line up to sign, including former mayors Bud Ford, Bill Koerner and Floyd Little."
The second petition drive was the idea of a group of 20 Manitou residents who have adopted the moniker Voice Of The Electorate (VOTE). Their referendum would require a community vote on annexation of any property larger than three acres.
"In no way are we in competition with the other petition drive," said organizer Tobe Easton. "We simply wish to make a double statement."
Should either effort collect as few as 252 valid signatures -- 15 percent of the last voter turnout in Manitou -- the city would be obligated to hold a mid-August special election. A majority vote at that time would make the measures law.
The dream slum
The City Council has been working with developers for months on the project. But this week, Mayor Nancy Hankins conceded that both petition drives were likely to succeed and directed City Attorney Alan Jensen to work in cooperation with the anti-annexation citizens to craft an ordinance that would require the city to put all future annexation questions to a citywide vote.
Doing so, said Hankins, would spare the expense of a special election.
This could sound the death knell for the controversial development that Zydeco, a Santa Fe-based developer, has been planning for Red Rock Canyon, an extraordinarily scenic property just west of Colorado Springs and adjacent to Bear Creek Park and Section 16.
Zydeco had told the City Council that the town could double its tax base by annexing the property and approving their development. The plan includes 512,000 square feet of retail space, 1.39 million square feet of office space, 700 apartments, 800 single family units, 60 luxury estates, and a two-hotel resort complex with 600 rooms and an 18-hole golf course.
Because the canyon is currently in unincorporated El Paso County, Manitou's role in the scheme would be to annex the property, classify it as a blighted (slum) area and declare it a special tax district, enabling Zydeco to build out at considerably lower cost than usual.
Zydeco consultant and landscape architect Parry Thomas said last week that Zydeco is continuing with design planning and site analysis, and the developer still intends to request annexation by Manitou. If their proposal is rejected by the town, the company could still ask the City of Colorado Springs to annex the site for development -- or it could work with El Paso County, which would eliminate annexation altogether.
Colorado Springs Planner Quinn Peitz and Ken Rowberg, the chief planner for El Paso County, suggested that Zydeco's options are more limited than Thomas indicates. If Zydeco wants to get water and sewer services to the site, they said, annexation by either Manitou or Colorado Springs is essential.
Peitz said it's been months since the city has talked with Zydeco, and annexation was never part of their discussions. Asked whether the city is interested in annexing, he said: "I'd have to see a development proposal before giving you a read on that. We'd certainly require annexation before we'd provide water and sewage service, however."
Rowberg said his department has had no development discussions of any kind with Zydeco. "The likelihood they'd develop with the county is slim, because we don't provide water and sewer service," he said. "They have to go through Manitou or Colorado Springs to get that."
Manitou city administrator Dan Wecks said the city's charter permits the sale of water to locales outside the city limits. "I don't think that's ever been done, though," he said, "and I can't imagine providing water to Red Rock Canyon without annexation. City Council would never approve it."
Council member Kathy Verlo voiced support for the Laurenzi and VOTE petition drives, saying, "It makes sense to leave annexation up to Manitou voters. A development the size of Red Rock Canyon would drastically change the quality of life in this community, and it's my strong impression that most residents don't want it."
State legislator and 30-year Manitou resident Marcy Morrison also endorsed the petition drive, but she added a note of caution.
"It would be a mistake to assume that annexation of Red Rock Canyon is dead in the water," she said. "Zydeco could still convince citizens that it's a good idea, and I've heard that several developers want the property if Zydeco drops out."
Meanwhile, Zydeco consultant Tom Kay, who described himself as a longtime trails and open space advocate, staunchly defended the canyon development. Environmentalists, he noted, have been unsuccessful in raising funds to preserve the property as open space and so development is inevitable.
"People who think that Red Rock Canyon can be saved for open space are on the wrong track," he said. "It won't and can't be saved, but Zydeco, at least, is looking at including some open space in its build-out."
Laurenzi, though, insists that it's he who is on the right track.
"I've watched Colorado Springs sell out to developers over the years," he said, "but Manitou has always been a haven from that. Less than a hundred new houses have gone up here in the past 25 years.
"I promise you just as sure as I'm standing here," he vowed, "that Manitou Springs will never annex Red Rock Canyon."