January 17, 2007

11th-hour uprising: Proposed Park County development riles Jeffco residents
"Reprinted courtesy of Evergreen Newspapers"

By Pamela Lawson
Correspondent, High Timber Times

The heavy breath of dozens of citizens wrapped tightly in winter coats permeated the icy air Saturday in the Bucksnort Saloon, which is closed for the winter.

They had braved the cold, and scrounged for parking spaces along a narrow, snowpacked lane in Sphinx Park, to learn more about a developer’s plans to capture water from Elk Creek — a creek that many say they depend on for their wells or for recreation.

What made this community meeting more urgent than most was a deadline: The Park County Board of County Commissioners could make a final decision Jan. 24 on a “1041” (water/wildlife) application by the Will-O-Wisp Metropolitan District in Pine Junction.

And that decision could pave the way for a 449-home development called Tanglewood.

The 1041 application is one of the final few steps necessary to complete the county process before engineers and project managers can start plans to build an overpass in Pine Junction and install an underground pipeline from Elk Creek to the district.

But the 55 citizens Saturday — many from Pine Grove, Sphinx Park and a private association of attorneys who own cottages in the area — were also pressured by what they believe to be an invisible wall at the Park-Jefferson county line — a line that divides land use regulations and information flow, even though residents from both sides of that line stop at the same country store for gas.

“Park County is much more pro-growth than this part of Jefferson County seems to have been,” said one visitor. “There will be growth, but we don’t want the ‘rape and pillage attitude.’ ”

If approved, the new Tanglewood project in Pine Junction near the county line will occupy about 350 acres on both the north and south sides of U.S. 285. It is the final phase of a development first started in the 1980s called Will-O-Wisp that has 116 homes.

But county lines have no bearing on nature, wildlife and streams like Elk Creek — which flows down from Mount Rosalee in the Mount Evans Wilderness Area.

The creek runs through Harris Park, a portion of the Woodside subdivision, through the Elk Falls subdivision, Staunton State Park and the communities of Glen Elk and Sphinx Park, blending with the North Fork of the South Platte River at the edge of Pine Grove.

It is a creek that feeds the only fire hydrant in that town, according to Larry Means, vice president of the North Fork fire board — a hydrant that last year helped toward improving ISO ratings for the department. Insurance ratings for homeowners dropped by 20 to 38 percent due to several improvements made within the fire district over the last several years.

Access to the South Platte River for fire calls is difficult in the town of Pine Grove, Means further said. The banks are steep and are surrounded by private properties.

Elk Creek also flows through the property of Vera and Drayton Dunwody, who say they own a decreed point of diversion for the creek known as Glassmann Ditch and the water adjudicated to it.

But the location of the official Glassmann Ditch that would serve as head gate and pumping station for the new development and would transport water from Elk Creek to the Will-O-Wisp metropolitan district is currently in dispute. The district claims, based on their collection of information, that there are two ditches by the same name and they have water rights to the correct one.

Vera who is a history buff and is currently completing her Colorado Bar exams began pouring over water rights on their 21-acre property on Elk Creek Road in Jefferson County before she learned of the Tanglewood project, she said. She has since accumulated numerous documents to substantiate what she believes is proof that they have the only proper chain of titles to the water rights, including the ditch in question dating back to 1913.

She claims that Will-O-Wisp has what she calls a “wild deed” written by one of the former owners of the project about 25 years ago that was approved by water court only because ownership details were not presented, she said.

A few of those who stepped up to the fireplace in the Bucksnort to warm feet and hands weren’t in the dark over the project. They shared their own version of past commissioner meetings they had attended in Fairplay over the last 18 months. And they spoke of filed reports by state agencies about the negative impacts to the fish and aquatic habitat in the stream.

“With all the information we have, we believe that Elk Creek will be affected,” said speaker Robert Nevadomski who lives in Woodside.

One source of contention involves water that would be removed from Elk Creek by the district at Glassmann Ditch and fed into another stream for several miles before it would be returned to the water source downstream — allegedly running the risk of drying up a section of Elk Creek during dry years.

Nevadomski says the diversion will transfer water into a different drainage called Wisp Creek and it will never return to Elk Creek in the area.

He challenged those in the audience, unfamiliar with the details of the case, to get involved before it is too late: “People say, ‘Somebody else will do it.’ Well, you are that somebody.”

Michael Schaefer, who labeled the Tanglewood developers the “Boston Billionaires,” believes the water issues should be of statewide interest.

Schaefer, an attorney who lives in the Woodside subdivision, filed a legal petition over easement issues against the district on behalf of his homeowner association a year ago. The water district is attempting to condemn the plat and covenants of one portion of the Woodside involving 24 lots and 19 homes to build the pipeline to Tanglewood.

Schaefer has also hired a separate attorney to defend a portion of his own property that was being considered as a possible location for a reservoir. That hearing is in March.

Micky Anderson, an attorney who owns a cabin in the private Glen Elk Association near Sphinx Park, urged Jeffco residents at the meeting to keep their calendars clear on Jan. 24 and attend the commissioners’ hearing.

He and the crowd, sipping coffee and nibbling glazed doughnuts, discussed ways to form a coalition, and they have scheduled another public gathering prior to the commissioners’ hearing to further inform locals.

That meeting will be at Zoka’s Restaurant in Pine Grove on Wednesday night.

This latest controversy over water preservation may be new to certain Jefferson County residents who live in that area, but it is far from new to the Park County commissioners.

They and their predecessors on the board have heard various angles of testimony on water issues, wildlife, traffic and other impacts of that development off and on for the last few years.

Around 2000 a group named Paramount first explored ways to complete the final phase of the project, planned for about 790 units including homes, townhomes and apartments.

When that group aborted its plan, a local builder picked it up, labeled it Villages at Sunset, and spent the next three years working his way through the county process, only to face a bankruptcy when he was unable to meet conditions of the plat (one in particular related to an overpass). That developer reduced the number of dwelling units considerably and made some financial and land concessions in response to community concerns.

The latest group, Land Securities Investments, entered an agreement with Will-O-Wisp more than two years ago when it bought the property and needed to procure water and sewer services. Will-O-Wisp is legally required to provide services for anyone in that district.

The legal entity for LSI is Pine Ridge LLC, a joint venture between it and Ryland Homes. LSI is an affiliate of Sunset Management Inc., which is building the Conifer Town Center.

This group has reduced the number of homes to 449, to be built on small parcels of land to accommodate open space and trails throughout the project. Ryland Homes plans to construct houses with prices starting around $400,000. One possible target market would be part-time telecommuters, Bob Brisnehan, a Ryland Homes consultant, said this week.

Brisnehan said that projects like Tanglewood can be an “ordeal” to complete, but this one has been a little tougher.

“It’s a good-size project, (and) it’s a bigger ordeal than normal,” he said.

A 19-acre commercially zoned parcel attached to the project will in the future add more businesses and services to the area.

“It’s the chicken-and-the-egg thing,” Brisnhan said, speaking of possible additions like a grocery store. “But you don’t get those kinds of things until you get some demand.”

Causing even more worry for the landowners congregated at the Bucksnort was news that developer Ron Lewis, who purchased Crow Ranch about 6 miles away at U.S. 285 and Elk Creek Road, as well as the familiar trout pond at that intersection, is hoping to build 70 homes — possibly more — in the future.

Elk Creek will be a principal source of water for that project too, along with wells, and Lewis says he has the water rights.

The project is still in the early planning stages and has not made its way through the Jefferson County planning and zoning process.

It would be what Lewis calls a “sustainable-development community” with increased water storage. It may also include an 18-hole natural golf course with greens, ball fields and biking trails, he said.

But Lewis, who is downstream from the proposed diversion ditch, is also concerned about the impacts to Elk Creek, he said. The area of the creek that would be circumvented crosses his property.

“I would like to see them not dry up a segment of Elk Creek but return it back at the diversion point,” he said this week. Lewis would like to see the water removed, used, cleaned, and returned to the diversion point.

“That would make the stream as whole as possible and not deny them their water use,” he said.

Lewis wasn’t at the peaceful but calculated uprising at the Bucksnort on Jan. 13.

Had he been, the meeting may have gone on longer than two-plus hours, as community members discussed the possible sightings of an endangered bird and fish in their area. Or the spring that dried up in 2005 in the backyard of one Sphinx Park homeowner. Or, for that matter, the old Bucksnort itself, once a general store and now “very sensitive to water levels,” the owner said.

Rick Angelica, board president of Will-O-Wisp, has since learned of the meeting and hopes he and others related to the project can allay the citizens’ concerns.

For example, the cubic-feet-per-second ratios for the creek are higher than the amount of water that will be removed, he said.

“There are all these people on the Web saying we are going to dry up the creek,” he said this week. “The creek has dried up one time, a few days, during the 10-year drought, but it replenishes itself. If they had attended the meetings or read the (materials) … I don’t think there will be a major impact at all.”

Angelica said there are no senior water rights in the portion of the creek that might be affected, and the water district’s water decree does not require it to return water at the point of removal.

“Everyone seems to be ignoring the point that we return 95 percent back to the stream,” he further said. “If we take one percent to 10 percent of the water out and we return 95 percent downstream, I don’t think that is a major effect.”

But therein lies the controversy about where the water will be returned, and who exactly owns the diversion point anyway.

Angelica cites the 30 meetings he has attended on the Tanglewood project in general — which could take 25-plus years to build out — and he cites the approval by the water commissioner and Park County regarding the diversion issue.

“It’s all very confusing right now,” Angelica said. “A lot of stuff came up at the last minute — there were papers passed around, titles to this and that — where (our lawyers) are in the process, I don’t know.”

The meeting at Zoka’s Restaurant in Pine Grove is at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 17. The 1041 hearing before the Park County Board of Commissioners begins at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 24, at the county courts building in Fairplay.

Fact: Close to 1,000 homes have already been platted in recent years within a 3 to 4 mile radius of Pine Junction for possible build-out.

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