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Fate of Venetucci Farm, already plagued by contaminated water issue, in limbo after foundation terminates staff

December 8, 2017 Updated: December 11, 2017 at 12:51 pm
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Rebecca McNeely, left and Emily McCarthy pick cucumbers at Venetucci Farm Monday morning, Aug. 27, 2012. The farm grows produce that can be found at Farm and Art Markets at the Margarita at Pine Creek Saturdays 9-1pm, The Sculpture Garden at the Fine Arts Center, Wednesdays 3-7pm and their roadside stand on 5210 Hwy 85, Saturdays, 9- 1 pm. Workers at the farm said it is still too early to tell about the pumkin season, but it looks like there will be enough for the school children in October. CAROL LAWRENCE, THE GAZETTE 8/27/12

The loss of the bulk of the revenue for the historic Venetucci Farm in Security has led the Pikes Peak Community Foundation to terminate its staff.

Susan Gordon, who with her husband, Patrick Hamilton, and their two children have managed Venetucci Farm for more than a decade, were notified this week of the decision.

"Patrick, Sarah, Clare and I were disappointed and saddened to abruptly receive the news that we would be forced to leave Venetucci Farm, which has been our home, work and community for the past 11 years," she said in an email.

Gordon said she and her family were told the organization was making a "force reduction."

The foundation, which manages $50 million in philanthropic funds and $20 million in assets consisting of Venetucci Farm and Aspen Valley Ranch in Woodland Park, had little choice, said special projects manager Sam Clark.

The Security Water and Sanitation Districts notified the foundation last month that it is suspending its annual lease agreement of four wells on the 190-acre property because of water contamination problems from toxic Air Force firefighting foam.

The districts paid the farm $265,000 in leasing fees for this year - even though they were unable to pump water from the wells, said general manager Roy Heald.

For 2018, "They've been suspended until we figure out a way to treat the wells and obtain water," he said.

Thus, Clark said, "We're going to have to pare down roles" at the farm.

Gordon and Hamilton, who live on the farm, will remain in their jobs through the end of this month. They can stay on the property as residents and caretakers until summer, "to allow them to transition and allow us to come up with caretaking responsibilities," Clark said.

"We have the opportunity to transition and treat them as fairly as possible." he said. "It comes with a lot of respect for the work they've done to feed and educate and care for our community through the farm."

Part-time educational coordinator David Rudin, a nine-year employee who has used the farm as a classroom for local students, also will lose his job.

The fate of the farm is unclear. Clark said no holiday events were planned, and other operations, such as a self-guided bird trail, its famous pumpkin patch and educational activities, have yet to be decided.

"We're assessing our options," Clark said. "We're addressing the budgetary issues now to give our employees as much lead time as possible. We're trying to take care of our stewardship responsibilities from the outset."

The educational working farm is home to the region's longtime pumpkin patch giveaway for school children. The land was left to the foundation by the late Bambi Venetucci, after the death of her husband, Nick Venetucci, in 2004, to preserve the family's legacy of opening their land to the community.

"Eleven years ago, as we walked the farm with Bambi Venetucci, we were acutely aware of the responsibility we faced to care for the land and preserve it as a working farm," Gordon said. "Losing a productive farm that provides opportunity for people to connect with the land and each other is not something our community and our world can afford."

Widespread contamination of area water sources from Peterson Air Force Base's firefighting material leaked carcinogenic chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds into the aquifer. As a result of a health advisory issued May 19, 2016, the farm stopped growing vegetables and herbs that it sold at local farmers' markets.

Security, Widefield and Fountain now use surface water culled from three sources that originate at Pueblo Reservoir, Heald said.

"That water is very expensive," Heald said. "We want to get back to using our wells - we have a huge investment in the wells and water rights."

The districts signed a contract with the Air Force on Thursday to help design a treatment system, he said, which would enable the districts to resume using water from the 24 regional wells that they stopped using in September 2016.

"It just shows the far-reaching effect this water contamination has had," Heald said. "We feel bad for the foundation - this has been a great source of income that's provided millions of dollars over the last decade, and we're working through it as partners. It's been a difficult problem for everybody in the community. We're putting everything on hold until we can get it figured out."

Clark said the decision was not adversarial, and more a consequence of unfortunate circumstances.

Gordon said she and her husband have not always seen eye-to-eye with the board of the community foundation, which has had new leadership in recent years, as well as a new direction and focus. A few weeks ago, the board removed its longtime Aspen Valley manager, who had donated the ranch to the foundation after her father died.

Talks about Colorado College taking over some of Venetucci Farm are off the table, said spokeswoman Leslie Weddell.

Earlier this year, CC and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation considered a "discovery phase" to determine if the college could operate the farm as a community asset that also would become part of the college's educational mission.

"However, we have determined such an arrangement is not in the best interests of both parties at this time," Weddell said Thursday.

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