When the city bought a 650-acre parcel of tall grass prairie, wildlife and prime birding ground surrounding -- but not adjacent to -- the Big Johnson Reservoir in southeastern Colorado Springs, the $8.1 million deal was heralded as a major coup for open space.
But instead of a preserve ringing the reservoir that will forever protect the prairie, noteworthy throughout the state for an abundance of wildlife and waterfowl, the waterfront property is now being eyed by developers as a playground rich with possibility.
The Fountain Mutual Irrigation Company, which owns the reservoir and the wide band of land immediately surrounding it, is considering proposals to sell the property to developers to pay for a needed dredging operation to improve its water storage capacity.
One of those proposals comes from a local development company, Legendary Homes, which is interested in building an upscale, gated community called Waterview Lake Estates. The project, in preliminary planning stages, would include approximately 200 homes built on half-acre lots surrounding the reservoir, which measures approximately 3/4 mile by 3/4 mile.
Dan Tibbetts, who owns Legendary Homes with his two brothers, said the project is in its conceptual stages. He declined to identify any potential investors but said he is encouraged that the land is available for development.
"We sure think it would be a neat little spot; it's certainly pretty with the ducks and the geese out there," said Tibbetts of the lakefront property that is now surrounded by a buffer of city-owned open space. "I grew up in that area, about a mile from there, and it seems like a nice spot to do it."
According to the project prospectus obtained by the Independent, Waterview Lake Estates will be a "private, upscale, gated community," its luxurious three- to four-story homes (with all the amenities) directly adjoining Big Johnson, the largest body of water in El Paso County.
"Private piers extending into this pristine body of water will make Waterview Lake Estates one of the top lakefront communities in the world! Water skiing, jet skiing, sailing, fishing will be only a few steps from your home," the prospectus promises.
"Thanks to the city's huge buffer of open space, life at Waterview will feel far from the city. The pristine parcel will be the best of the high plains in its native setting with plenty of birds and wildlife."
But development of any kind in the middle of the open space was not at all what the city had in mind when Council approved the $8.1 million Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) purchase last Aug. 22. The state has also committed Great Outdoors Colorado funds to the project.
Now the city has apparently been blindsided because they never bothered to ask the owners of the Fountain Mutual Irrigation Company what they intended to do with their land. "That wouldn't be a typical question we would have asked," said Paul Butcher, manager of the city's Parks Department, which oversees the funds.
Butcher said the city never considered the possibility that the waterfront at Big Johnson could be developed.
"Our primary interest was the [open space] land itself, not necessarily access to the water," he said. "Although the reservoir, with its birding [opportunities] is a nice feature, we didn't buy that land so eventually we would have access to the reservoir.
"It would be unfortunate, for a purist, for there to be a row of houses between the open space and the reservoir, but I think we still would have bought the open space," Butcher continued. "No one ever guaranteed the reservoir would always be there."
But most open-space advocates and Council members who approved the deal certainly thought the purchase ensured that the property -- including the reservoir -- would forever remain pristine and unpopulated.
"Clearly, an upscale development in the center of [the open space] acquisition was not the intent, certainly not envisioned by me," said Councilman Ted Eastburn, who seconded the motion to buy the land. "I went into it with the understanding that the body of land purchased was contiguous to the reservoir. That was certainly my understanding."
Other members of Council extolled the purchase, notably former Councilwoman Linda Barley, who identified the Big Johnson Open Space acquisition as her major accomplishment while on Council (she was defeated by Sallie Clark in a re-election bid last month). Barley and other city leaders claimed that the purchase would forever protect the reservoir and its environs.
The cost of the property represented more than a year's worth of sales tax dollars devoted to the TOPS funds. Approved by Colorado Springs voters in 1997, the TOPS sales tax currently comprises between $5.5 million and $6 million annually, said Butcher.
Sitting there smiling
Dick Janitell, the president of the Fountain Mutual Irrigation Company, said he was surprised when he learned that Colorado Springs had purchased the land. He said he found it "strange" that the city never consulted his company to determine its plans for the reservoir and the property immediately surrounding it.
"When TOPS bought it, I'm sitting there smiling, saying, 'Maybe they know something we don't.' I assumed they were under the misimpression that they owned right up to water," Janitell said. "I think it's kind of arrogant that they would bid on a piece of property and turn it into a park and claim that we'll leave it as is for eternity, without consulting us."
Janitell said the irrigation company has since entertained numerous queries from developers -- he estimated approximately 10 builders have approached them with ideas.
Dan Fosha, the conservation co-chair of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, said open-space activists have been speculating for months on the possibility that the land could be developed.
"We had a hunch that they were trying to do a sneaky thing and do it as quietly as they could," Fosha said. "Wow, this is serious."
Fosha compared the Big Johnson development concept to similar recent ventures in Colorado -- including those near Telluride and in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison -- where developers have essentially extorted the government, he said, to buy privately owned inholdings that are surrounded by public land to avoid development.
However Janitell, a Colorado Springs native, said he has no burning desire to see the area developed. The irrigation company, he said, is simply seeking to raise $3 million to $5 million for a needed dredging of the reservoir which, at this point, has an extensive build-up of sludge.
"We'll present any and all offers and do what's best for the ditch company," he said. "This is strictly an issue of economics."
Tibbetts' proposal is intriguing, Janitell said, though the discussions are still in their early stages. If the irrigation company actually sells the property, the sale would first have to be approved by its five-member board and then win a majority vote of the company's approximately 60 investors.
And, the project would have to win a zoning change approval -- the property is currently zoned for agriculture purposes -- from the Board of County Commissioners before groundbreaking could begin.
"Frankly I was shocked when they came up with that idea for the property," Janitell said of Tibbetts' plan. "Man, talk about a stroke of brilliance -- pristine wildlife and the ultimate: no one is going to ruin your view.
"I thought, 'Whoa, I never would have thought of that,' but then again, I'm not a developer."