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Punches thrown ahead of round two over proposed quarry south of Colorado Springs

March 10, 2018 Updated: April 15, 2018 at 3:40 pm
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The view from U.S. Highway 115 shows the hill, behind the sign, where the Hitch Rack Ranch rock quarry would be built behind. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Opponents of a proposed quarry south of Colorado Springs have shifted their strategy from protesting the possible impacts on a cluster of nearby subdivisions in the foothills to the new scar they say it will leave on the Front Range.

In a five-minute video, released this week by critics of Transit Mix's plan for the mine at Hitch Rack Ranch that features drone footage of Pikeview Quarry on Colorado Springs' northwest side, the slogan "No more scars" slides into view in the final frame.

"It has a bigger impact than just our area," said Kristan Rigdon, a spokeswoman for a group of residents who live near the proposed site, off Colorado 115 in the area of Little Turkey Creek. "It's a decision: Is Colorado Springs going to keep destroying and shredding our foothills, or are we not?"

On Wednesday, the group also unveiled a new website, stopthehrrquarry.org, that highlights its arguments against the project, from worries that it will threaten wildlife and water to concerns that it will increase the truck traffic on an already dangerous highway.

Many of those grievances are the same ones that objectors raised when Transit Mix first applied for a state permit to mine the piece of private property, while some are similar to the reasons cited by the Mined Land Reclamation Board after it denied the company's initial application in 2016.

Transit Mix has repeatedly asserted that the quarry won't become another eyesore because it will be hidden by the area's rugged landscape.

Company spokesman Daniel Cole dismissed the new website, saying it's "full of misinformation." He's said that Transit Mix has addressed many of the issues by reducing the quarry site from roughly 400 acres to about 240 acres, only about 130 of which would be mined.

The state mining board is scheduled to make a decision on the company's second application following a hearing April 25-26, although those dates are subject to change, according to Todd Hartman, spokesman for the state's division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

Highway 115 Citizens Advisory Committee, which organized in 2016 to oppose the company's first application, paid a local advertising company several thousand dollars to build the new website and has spent thousands more hiring experts for the upcoming hearing, Rigdon said. She estimates the committee has raised about $30,000 - most of which has already been allocated - for the second round of what has become a contentious battle between Transit Mix and the ranch's neighbors and conservation groups.

"We're just as committed as we were last time to the fight this time," Rigdon said.

The debate has intensified the second time around.

Transit Mix has recruited dozens of supporters, including Colorado Springs city councilors, state legislators, and state Board of Education members excited about the more than $20 million the quarry would likely generate over its lifetime in royalty payments for Colorado schools.

Opponents of the project have gained the support of City Council President Richard Skorman, who appears in the newly-released video. Other notable opponents include the National Audubon Society, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy, which manages the Aiken Canyon Preserve neighboring the quarry site.

The El Pomar Foundation, which seldom takes a stance on such issues, became an official opponent by a Board of Directors vote in January.

Both El Pomar and the Nature Conservancy have been deeded pieces of land along the quarry's proposed boundary that are destined to one day become preservation areas for a wildlife habitat the organizations say is found in few places along the Front Range.

"We just want people to be aware of the potential impacts on this 1,500-acre ranch and the fact that there is an alternative to a quarry, which is a large open space tract with public-private access," said Thayer Tutt, El Pomar Foundation's vice chairman.

The two organizations invited local outdoor recreation and open space advocates to a March 2 meeting, where information about the quarry's potential negative impacts was presented. Representatives from the Trails and Open Space Coalition, Palmer Land Trust and the Catamount Institute attended.

"Here we have another proposal for another huge quarry, one-and-a-half times the size of Pikeview, nine miles from Colorado Springs, in a place where there's possibly a chance to have a nature center," said Skorman, who attended the meeting. "I just think this is the absolute wrong direction to go for reasons that don't have a long-term benefit to the community."

Transit Mix spokesman Cole said that, until now, conservation groups have paid little attention to the Hitch Rack Ranch property.

"The Nature Conservancy and the other groups now claiming Hitch Rack Ranch is the most precious property on Earth had absolutely no interest in buying it when it was for sale a few years ago. Only now, when they see the possibility of controlling it without paying for it, have they decided Hitch Rack Ranch must be preserved at all costs - provided those costs fall on someone else," he said in a statement.

The two sides have crossed swords in dueling opinion pieces published in the Colorado Springs Business Journal. A quarry opponent equated the project to "land rape" in a Jan. 12 letter to the editor. In a Jan. 26 response, Transit Mix president Jerry Schnabel shot back that "While it would be nice if we could all sterilize our neighbor's property and preserve it as open space for our own pleasure, property rights are protected by the United States Constitution, and our laws preclude us from controlling property we do not own."

Promoting what it calls a "4-for-1" deal, Transit Mix has said that, if it's able to open the new quarry, it will be able to end operations at Pikeview 10 to 20 years ahead of schedule. It would also speed reclamation efforts at the Pikeview Quarry and Black Canyon Quarry, southwest of the Cedar Heights neighborhood, and shut down its batch plants on North Nevada Avenue and Costilla Street.

Opponents have rejected this offer, too, calling it a disingenuous repackaging of obligations the company already has.

Unlike the original site, which would have included areas north and south of Little Turkey Creek Road, the revised site would be entirely south of the road, Cole has said. The proposed lifetime of the quarry has also been reduced from 55 to 40 years.

In late 2016, the Mined Land Reclamation board voted 3-2 to deny Transit Mix's first application, later citing concerns that the quarry could disturb the delicate network of underground cracks and fissures that holds the area's water supply and that it could imperil a valuable wildlife corridor, including habitat for the threatened Mexican spotted owl.

The company has said a groundwater study that it commissioned found quarry operations won't be detrimental to the water supply, although opponents have disputed those findings.

When asked about wildlife concerns, an engineer who coordinated Transit Mix's application said in a statement that three years of surveys have shown there aren't any of the threatened owls on the property.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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