The long-sought link between two nature sanctuaries in eastern Colorado Springs could be realized, but it would come at a steep, controversial cost.
The city’s Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) working committee has approved $3.1 million for 295 acres that hold six houses previously bought by Colorado Springs Utilities for a since-abandoned reservoir plan.
With the green light Thursday from the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and later from the City Council, proponents say the land could finally launch the plan to access Jimmy Camp Creek Regional Park and Corral Bluffs Open Space.
The prairies and woodlands of the former entered the city’s trust in 1988, while Corral Bluffs’ rugged, colorful expanse was acquired in 2008.
All this time, officials have sought to preserve as much land as possible around the two, eventually filling a gap that would allow them to craft a single master plan.
Now, some say this is it — the key to 1,864 acres of conservation and new ground to explore, unlike anything the Pikes Peak region has had so far.
In an email, TOPS Manager Britt Haley called it a potential “dream come true.”
She later declined to comment further through a city spokeswoman, citing “several moving parts” and the City Council’s pending review.
The pay-out would be about a third of TOPS’ total annual revenue, built through portions of sales tax dollars. And the price tag is especially staggering considering how much those revenues are shaved for backlogged park maintenance, a demand that has steadily increased since TOPS was formed in 1997 to establish more parks and open spaces.
As it is, $5.5 million is the projected sum set aside every year for land acquisitions.
For houses? The 1997 mandate includes nothing for those.
“In a perfect world, it wasn’t as messy. We’d get the property and not have to buy the houses,” said Susan Davies, leading advocate for the Trails and Open Space Coalition.
“But it doesn’t always come in a box with a bow. I’m just delighted we’re gonna get access to it, and I’m glad it’s not gonna be turned into a development.”
The threat has loomed in the mosaic dominated by Nor’wood Development Group Inc.
Colorado Springs Utilities moved in after 2002, when water managers went searching for a storage site to meet the coming Southern Delivery System, the pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir. They plotted the Jimmy Camp Creek Reservoir, along the way buying out homeowners or turning them into renters.
But in 2008, federal regulators shifted Utilities’ attention south toward Bradley and Marksheffel roads. The Gary M. Bostrom Reservoir is in the next phase of SDS construction, scheduled for 2020-2025.
A series of government approvals led to 2017, when Utilities made its intentions known to abandon Jimmy Camp Creek. Under voter-approved procedure, that opened the door for other city departments to make a deal on properties.
Of the six homes TOPS has identified, most are occupied by renters who will be pushed out, said one neighbor, Jackie Hilaire.
“I’m sad that some of my neighbors will be leaving, and yet others are going to have to rebuild,” said the president of the Corral Bluffs Alliance, who for 11 years has been leading hikes in the gated open space near her home. “But progress always comes at a cost.”
In this case, it’s a high cost — and places TOPS in unfamiliar home-buying and demolition territory.
“It’s something we’ve wanted to be able to preserve is the key point,” said Hilaire, who spent years on the city’s parks board. “If we think of it bigger in terms of being able to preserve as much of this as possible, then this is super exciting.”
It isn’t unusual for TOPS to find strings attached to candidate open spaces, said Lee Milner, the working committee member who last week made the motion for the vote that unanimously passed.
He noted that the crown jewel established in TOPS’ early days, Red Rock Canyon Open Space, required millions to remove a trailer park. More recently, in 2016, the program went ahead on a $424,900 deal for a warehouse that blocked the expanding Rock Island Regional Trail.
Maybe the Jimmy Camp-Corral Bluffs link through yet-to-be demolished houses isn’t ideal, but “we need to do it,” Milner said. “The time has come.”
The Springs has long heard legends of Corral Bluffs, regarded as a world-class site for scientific research. Bones of prehistoric beasts have been found exposed in the badlands atop the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary, marking the end of dinosaurs.
Preserving those remains has been as complicated a task for the city as acquiring land in the vicinity. More could be needed even with the proposed link. But advocates say there would be no need to wait any longer on a master planning process.
“It’ll be time,” Davies said. “This is it.”