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Latest chapter in Kane Ranch could involve VA cemetery

By: EILEEN WELSOME
May 6, 2010
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photo - The Kane family cemetery on the old Kane Ranch on Squirrel Creek Road about 4 miles east of Fountain. Part of the ranch is being considered as a veterans cemetery. Photo by Carol Lawrence, The Gazette
The Kane family cemetery on the old Kane Ranch on Squirrel Creek Road about 4 miles east of Fountain. Part of the ranch is being considered as a veterans cemetery. Photo by Carol Lawrence, The Gazette 

In the summertime, when the grass grew tall on the plains of eastern El Paso County, rancher Alexander “Andy” Kane would round up his insect-crazed livestock and herd them through a concrete dipping vat filled with pesticides.

Afterward, the animals would be led off to a nearby corral to dry and sent back out to pasture. Sometime in the late 1960s, the vat was filled with dirt and forgotten.

By the time Kane died in 2003, he had amassed nearly 4,000 acres south of Squirrel Creek Road and east of Fountain.

In his will, he directed that the bulk of his land holdings be sold and the proceeds placed into two charitable foundations that today are collectively worth more than $20 million.

Kane also carved out 440 acres, which included his homestead and the old cattle dipping operation, and donated them to El Paso County to be used for an open space park.

His dream of seeing the acreage become a park has yet to become reality. In a complicated land swap, the county exchanged 60 acres, which included the homestead, outbuildings and contaminated cattle dip, to a local developer. In return, the county received an adjoining parcel of roughly equal size that has no contamination but also doesn’t have the natural beauty or vistas of the Kane homestead.

Now, the re-configured 440 acres has become the  “leading candidate” for a national veterans’ cemetery, a spokesman for the Office of Veterans Affairs confirmed recently.

Kane’s will doesn’t mention anything about a cemetery, but people who knew him say he would have been pleased to know the land he wanted to preserve as open space might someday be the final resting place for some of the nation’s veterans.

***

A professional rodeo cowboy and rancher, Kane was born Aug. 27, 1917 on a small homestead east of Fountain. At age 19, he bought 40 acres and gave it to his parents.  

“He was a big strong cowboy in his day,” said Bill Corrigan, a senior vice president in the trust division of American National Bank in Colorado Springs.

Corrigan was a longtime friend of Kane’s, an executor of the estate, and still serves as co-trustee for the Kane Family Foundation, which each year awards dozens of merit-based scholarships to high-achieving students in southern Colorado.

Sometime after 1940, Kane met Wanden Matthews La Farge, a “Park Avenue socialite” as Corrigan described her, who came West to study American Indian culture. Educated by private tutors and later at Columbia University, she was a wealthy woman who spoke seven languages and had traveled the world.

Wanden Kane served twice as Fountain mayor, becoming one of the first female mayors in Colorado. Though she and her husband came from vastly different backgrounds  — Kane had only a high school diploma — they fell in love and married.  

“This is the cowboy and the lady story,” said Corrigan. “Over their respective lifetimes, they acquired and built a large ranch. They never financed or borrowed money. They paid cash for everything.”

After Wanden Kane died in the early 1990s, her husband continued to live on the ranch, riding horses and going for long lunches with his friends.

“He was a cool guy,” remembered Colorado Springs City Councilman Tom Gallagher. Kane was two months shy of his 86th birthday  when he died.

***

In Kane’s will, he left  440 acres containing his homestead to the county with the stipulation that “No homes are to be built on the property. It is to be an Open Space Park area.”

“He had lived his whole life in El Paso County and hoped they would make a park,” said the estate’s lawyer, Bruce Buell. “He had an aversion to seeing it developed.”

The 440 acres were the heart of Kane’s ranching operation and included his cinder-block house, a couple barns, some ramshackle outbuildings and the cattle dipping vat. The parcel also had easy access to Squirrel Creek Road, a creek running through it, a grove of cottonwood trees, and was situated on a ridge with stunning views of Pikes Peak.

In a Sept. 8, 2003 resolution, the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners expressed its intent to accept Kane’s “generous gift.” But after environmental officials learned of a leaking underground gasoline tank and the cattle dipping operation, staffers estimated it would take upwards of $200,000 to clean up the chemicals.

Unwilling to take on the environmental liability or take responsibility for the rickety buildings, the county was prepared to pass on the entire 440 acres. “If the county didn’t want to take it, it was supposed to go to the state of Colorado and they told us they didn’t want it either,” said Buell.

Then Jim Morley, a blunt-talking developer involved in real estate projects throughout the county, came forward with a solution: a land swap.

Morley had purchased all of Kane’s nearly 4,000-acre ranch and the water rights for $9.3 million, according to documents and banker Bill Corrigan. Morley said he subsequently sold about 3,700 acres and some of the water rights for $27.2 million to various buyers.

Morley also wanted to buy the acreage that included the Kane homestead, but that was off the table because of the will, Corrigan recalled. So Morley volunteered to take 60 acres that included the homestead and the contamination and give the county 60 acres to the southwest. That parcel is free of contamination, but it also has less creek, less dramatic vistas, fewer cottonwood trees, and less access to Squirrel Creek Road, maps show.

 “I said, ‘I’ll peel you off 60 acres and you give me 60 acres and we put in a conservation easement and you can take the rest of the parcel for a future park and I’ll take the liability of the contamination and you never have to get into the chain of title,’” he recalled in a recent interview at his downtown office.

Morley, and his wife, Robin, have spent $1.3 million on improvements and turned the parcel into an equestrian center called the MM Ranch.

No appraisals comparing the value of the two parcels were done because county officials said they didn’t need them. “The end goal was to carry out his  (Kane’s) intent. The end goal was not to make sure you had the dollar equivalent. In fact I think we came out ahead because we got vacant land with no environmental issues,” said County Attorney Bill Louis. “The acreage we ultimately got was part of the same ranch; it just wasn’t the acreage he originally set aside.”

 Morley, his relatives and his companies have contributed to both charitable causes and political campaigns, including El Paso County commission races.

Campaign finance records show those contributions included $5,300 to Sallie Clark from 2004 to 2008; $2,000 to Jim Bensberg from 2002 to 2006; $1,400 to Dennis Hisey from 2004 to 2008 and $400 to Amy Lathen in 2008. (Lathen was not on the commission at the time of the Kane Ranch transactions.)

Morley, as well as the county commissioners, said there was no connection between the campaign contributions and the land swap. “There were no favors done here. In fact, we were tougher on him than he might have liked,” said Commissioner Clark, referring to recent actions by the board.

Morley, along with county officials and the estate’s representatives, said the deal benefitted all the parties. “It was a good deal for the county and a good deal for us,” Morley said.

Maps show that the county planned to build a loop road around the Morley property, which would allow the public access to the open space. But that’s been postponed because the site’s being considered as a possible site for a new veteran’s cemetery, said Tim Wolken, director of the county’s Public Services Department.

***

As part of the land swap, Morley agreed to clean up the old cattle dip within two years. The Colorado Department of Public Health  Environment approved a plan that included leaving the soil in place and covering it with a concrete pad.

 “The contamination is very tiny,” said estate attorney Buell.  “It’s hardly there,” added  Corrigan, the banker. 

Still, Morley failed to complete the clean-up by his 2009 deadline. As a consequence, county commissioners instructed staffers to pull a $300,000 letter of credit on file with one his banks and hired a firm to finish the work. “All $300,000 is in possession and control of the county,” said Louis, the county attorney. “No taxpayer funds are being used.”

Morley has no ready explanation for not finishing the clean-up job. “We just didn’t want to do it,” he said.

But the work is now underway. The old concrete vat has been dug up, dirt has been trucked in, and the area for the pad staked out. Morley said the remediation will cost about  $75,000, far less than what county officials originally anticipated. “All it’s going to be is a concrete slab with some basketball hoops and a tennis net,” he said.

In 2007, Commissioner Wayne Williams suggested at a board meeting that the Kane parcel be donated for use as  a veterans cemetery. Former commissioner Douglas Bruce was also in favor of such a donation, as were other members of the commission.

Mike Nacincik, spokesman for the VA’s National Cemetery Administration, said an environmental assessment of the site is underway. The assessment, which will take three or four months to complete, will evaluate the parcel size, access to communications, water, roads and veterans themselves. “We generally look for 300 to 500 acres of land and hope to have the property serve the burial needs of veterans for at least 50 years and possibly longer.”

Retired U.S. Army Col. Victor Fernandez, who for 12 years has been working with other veterans to get a cemetery located in the Pikes Peak region, said he’s worried that relatives of the deceased veterans will have trouble finding the Kane Ranch site and prefers that the future cemetery to be located on one of the two sites near the Air Force Academy.

Louis said it would have been nice to have had the VA at the table when the land swap was being worked out, but added that it was not a “custom-made”  transaction for the VA. “The purpose of the transaction was to get the land that Mr. Kane left to the county.”

As it happens, Kane, his wife, and son are buried on a small fenced cemetery overlooking the old homestead. “Those of us who knew Andy well think he would be honored,” said attorney Buell.

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