February 8, 2007

Sphinx Park locals fear water, history at risk.
"Reprinted courtesy of Evergreen Newspapers"

By Pamela Lawson
Correspondent, High Timber Times

EDITORS NOTE: This story is first in an occasional series that will address water issues, condemnation issues and controversy over the location of a head gate and pumping station for a proposed development by Ryland Homes in Pine Junction.

Rose Kelly remembers the days when she and other residents used to gather round a campfire at the Bucksnort in Sphinx Park and cook meals for their neighbors.

Now a saloon, the Bucksnort once was a homestead and mercantile that provided necessary staples for the eclectic bunch of cabin dwellers that lived nearby — some permanent, others there during summer months.

When she moved on to Boulder in the 1970s, then Louisville, then back to Pine, she couldn’t escape the magic of the place. The residents looked after each other and the views of giant rocks with Elk Creek slapping at the base of them were spectacular. So she returned.

“I kept coming back to Sphinx Park — it’s just a really special place,” said Kelly, who lives there with her husband Daniel. “One of my daughters was born in one of the little cabins behind the Bucksnort; my kids played in the creek when they were little and my granddaughter does when she visits. I have a lot of history here.”

Enough history for her to worry about the future of the place, situated — in a round-about sort of way — between Pine Grove and Shaffers Crossing on Elk Creek Road.

Kelly speaks of the time, years ago, when her well water changed taste after neighbors “punched a hole” for a well across the lane. She speaks of a spring behind her current home that has been dry in recent years.

A large housing development being proposed in a nearby community could impact Elk Creek and she and others are upset over possible impacts to their wells and the “gorgeous” scenery.

The development called Tanglewood in Pine Junction is technically across the Park County line. Applicants for the project have been working their way through the Park County planning and zoning process for some time. But Jefferson County residents say they have only learned of those plans, recently.

In January, they hosted two public meetings that, combined, drew 200-plus people seeking ways to protect their property and water rights.

A final “1041” water application by the Will-O-Wisp water district that will serve the 449-home project, was scheduled to go before Park County commissioners in late January.

But that hearing was postponed until some of the issues, recently raised by residents, are addressed along with pending legal matters over property condemnation.

It's wrong to destroy one community to build another, say Sphinx Park residents who met recently at the Bucksnort Saloon regarding a proposed subdivision that could divert water from Elk Creek on which they depend.
(Photo by Pamela Lawson)

A major source of contention involves water that would be removed from Elk Creek by the water district at a pumping station upstream. The water would not be returned to the creek at its source, but rather fed to another stream for several miles before it is returned downstream, past Sphinx Park and adjacent communities, including Pine Grove, where the only fire hydrant in that town is dedicated to the creek. The diversion would run the risk, the residents believe, of drying up a section of Elk Creek on which they rely.

They also worry about impacts to wildlife and they challenge the logic of building a dense mountain subdivision that would resemble Highlands Ranch.

Mostly, the local residents are demanding respect for the homes and lives they have already built there.

“You have to allow the communities that already exist continue to flourish and take that into consideration when you bring in additional homes,” Rose Kelly said.

Tom Schuster, vice president of the Elk Falls Property Owners Association, upstream from Sphinx Park near the Park/Jefferson county line estimates that roughly 300 homes in Jeffco are situated on or near Elk Creek, not including homes in Park County, he said.

“This is not just a local issue that impacts 20 or 30 people. It’s far beyond that,” Schuster said.

Micky Anderson, a Denver attorney, believes the water issues could be potentially devastating to Glenelk, an enclave of 22 cabins near Sphinx Park where he and other families, part of an association, have owned cabins for decades.

Many of the families, in fact, date back to the establishment of the village, built around 1900, when the mothers and children of Denver families spent summer months there and their husbands came to visit by train on weekends.

Their predecessors are a diverse bunch of part time dwellers, a quarter of which are attorneys by trade. But they have remained close, dining together in a main lodge and posing for group photos near a favorite rock every couple of years.

“Every fall when there is a lack of precipitation the wells have been challenged to produce water,” Anderson explained. “During the drought some of the wells did not produce water for weeks at a time.”

Of course, many of the wells are old and potentially shallow but disrupting that delicate balance could set off a chain reaction of events that the quaint collective has not experienced in 100 years.

Digging new wells would be costly and may be impossible for some due to location. It could also pose problems during the county permitting process.

“We are trying to mind our business and we would just as soon turn back the clock, but we know development is coming off 285,” Anderson said.

Even so, his hamlet is the kind that city dwellers pine for on weekend drives through the back roads of historic Colorado. Where a few rustic cabins of hand-hewn logs and paths to old outhouses, rest bravely atop rock outcrops or along narrow lanes where horse drawn buggies once traveled.

They, better than any museum, serve to remind passersby of Colorado’s heritage, the residents say.

If water issues were to one day shut this village down it would be “heartbreaking for every person up there,” Anderson said.

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