Surrounded by the city, but not a part of it, the 18,000 people who live in Cimarron Hills are on their own when it comes to fire protection, water and sewer services — a situation Colorado Springs and El Paso County would like to prevent through a new agreement to manage annexations together.
Without city services, Cimarron Hills, a six-square mile enclave, has to pay its own way. Most recently, the community bonded a new $43 million reverse osmosis wastewater treatment plant to meet state standards for water quality, said Steven Hasbrouck, Cherokee Metro District board president. The new plant increased user bills by $5.43 per month, he said.
The metro district broke ground on the new wastewater treatment plant in January and it is just the latest challenge faced by the enclave, Hasbrouck said. In the late 2000s, the district had to pay top dollar for water from Colorado Springs Utilities because of a legal disagreement over the district's water in the Upper Black Squirrel Creek Basin.
"Water and wastewater, those are the most basic tenets of civilization. Without those, you don’t have civilization," Hasbrouck said.
Water is also central to the new annexation agreement reached by the city and county. Both would like to see dense urban-level development hook up to city water, rather than have more developments drilling into the diminishing Denver aquifer.
"We are starting to see some substantial groundwater declines over the last 10 to 20 years," said Patrick Wells, general manager with Colorado Springs Utilities Water Resources and Demand Management. Some locations have seen water levels decline 20 to 50 feet per year, according to a Utilities presentation.
If new developments get hooked up to city water it can also help protect the supply for existing wells, said City Councilman Wayne Williams.
Through the new annexation agreement, officials also aim to encourage logical development on the city's edges up to three miles from the city's boundary. The city would rather not see small ranchettes on the city's boundaries that dense development would then leapfrog over, said Peter Wysocki, city planning and development director.
"We are going to encourage much more systematic growth," Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said.
Both city and county officials will talk with developers proposing dense neighborhoods in the county under the new agreement, and those who are good candidates for annexation and interested in it will be required to put in city infrastructure, such as curbs, gutters and sidewalks. Colorado Springs will not be forcing anyone to annex.
For the city, it makes more sense to annex more residential development than it did even just five years ago because rooftops can generate more revenue. The city can now collect sales taxes on online orders and following a change to the Gallagher Amendment approved by voters in November, homes will generate more property taxes over time, Suthers said.
The improved planning process will also ensure infrastructure changes hands in a logical fashion.
El Paso County Planning and Community Development Executive Director Craig Dossey said under current annexation rules, mapping out areas proposed for annexation doesn’t always take into consideration roads and other infrastructure. In some cases, this means the land is absorbed into city limits while the county remains responsible for maintaining the infrastructure around it.
"This (agreement) creates the opportunity for the city and county to discuss these things earlier on," Dossey said. "Having an eye toward the future in the area of planning and development is necessary. It allows two entities to join forces and make development much more intentional and much more collaborative."
The higher development standards are not expected to drive up costs to builders because the county already has fairly high standards for dense development, said Kyle Campbell, a member of the Housing and Building Association’s Public Policy Council and a private consultant with civil engineering firm Classic Consulting.
"Urban county development has curbs and gutters, sidewalks, inlets," he said. "It’s very similar to the city’s urban standards."
Reliable city water to a subdivision is also likely to be an important selling point for buyers, even if meeting city standards is more expensive, Suthers said.
For city Utilities, serving the projected population growth over the coming decades means acquiring 41,000 acre feet of additional water annually through conservation water reuse, agriculture leases and additional water supply from the two major rivers outside the area, according to its 50-year plan.
So far, Utilities has kept up with the growth in recent years, aided by resident conservation efforts, Wells said.
As the city considers new annexations, water will be a key consideration, Williams said.
"It does no one any good to annex areas if we cannot provide the water to them," he said.
As for Cimarron Hills, it too is expanding its water and wastewater service territory outside its boundaries to growing areas, even as its footprint shrinks and the city annexes commercial properties on its boundaries, said Larry Keleher, a Cherokee Metro District board member.
"We are just a little island and we’re constantly shrinking," he said.
It's likely only a matter of time, before the city annexes Cimarron Hills as well, he said.