Colorado Springs housing developer interested in Big Johnson Reservoir

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Before a couple hundred single-family homes could join the pristine wildlife on an estimated 130-acre plot of land near the Big Johnson Reservoir, developers would have to overcome myriad obstacles. The biggest question, however, may be why anyone would want to live there in the first place.

The area in northwest Colorado Springs had been assumed, until the last week, to be largely protected from development. Trails and Open Space (TOPS), an organization dedicated to preserving open space in the Pikes Peak region, acquired the grasslands in October 2000 from Colorado Springs attorney and developer, Greg Timm. The price tag for the 600-plus acres was $8 million.

However, the deal didn’t include about 130 acres ringing the reservoir; land that is now being proffered for future development by the owner, Fountain Mutual Irrigation Co. One of the co-owners of Legendary Homes, a developer who has expressed interest in the site, says Fountain Mutual has made it clear they are open to negotiation.

“(Richard Janitell) said everything’s for sale,” said Dan Tibbetts.

However, Fountain Mutual and Colorado Springs Utilities have an agreement restricting access to the property. The utility company is assessing water quality in the area.

“We entered the lease agreement so we will have time to evaluate the impact of changing state and federal regulations that could adversely affect CSU’s wastewater treatment operations if the Big Johnson Reservoir were used for recreation purposes,” said Gary Bostrom, infrastructures manager with CSU.

While the assessment’s time frame isn’t set in stone, Bostrom estimates that no kind of development could begin until 2007 — and that’s if CSU renegotiates the reservoir’s use and availability.

“If we don’t renegotiate it, Big Johnson could be open for recreational purposes,” he said.

Tibbetts said Legendary Homes is tossing around ideas for development with Fountain Mutual, which sells water to farmers for irrigation. Though plans between the two companies are not solid, people hoping to buy into the pristine property are already making calls to the developer.

“We’re getting calls to reserve lots,” said Tibbetts. “Within two days we’ve had a lot of support from the public, and they think it’s a great idea. We’re taking names and phones numbers (in case) this pans out.”

Timm, who had heard about the issue just a few hours prior to being interviewed by The Business Journal, said the purchase of the land by TOPS was intended to provide open space and was part of an arrangement to keep the whole area untouched.

“TOPS people worked out an arrangement … and that was the commitment that was made,” said Timm. “The whole talk of this surprises me.”

Timm also said he was surprised that anyone would want to develop the land or live there in the first place.

“I wouldn’t want to have a house near there,” he said. “There’s a strong odor … and I assumed it was the water and sewage from the discharge of the sewage plant that comes into the line at different times of the year.” He added that whoever wants to develop the property would have to dredge the reservoir, as well as put in an aeration system to pump oxygen into the water if they wanted to support aquatic life.

“(The reservoir) affects future wastewater treatment plants and existing wastewater treatment plants that could discharge into Fountain Creek. Those plants are the source for Big Johnson,” Bostrom said, adding that he didn’t know what effect development would have on the area.

“I can’t say if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. We have to see how it might affect our operation.”

Terry Putnam, manager of resource planning for TOPS, has a laundry list of reasons why any developer should dig deeper before committing to buying in the area.

For example, water overflow from the reservoir cannot be controlled, he said, which would affect building homes as well as cause safety concerns. Noise from Colorado Springs Municipal Airport is also a concern. “The noise is at a high level from part of that area all the way down to Fontaine Boulevard,” he said.

Possibly the biggest issue is that as long as TOPS property surrounds the area owned by Fountain Mutual, there is little possibility of getting utilities there, said Putnam. Putnam also points out the water in the reservoir is not potable and cannot be used for swimming. Dredging the reservoir would not change its sources.

“The reservoir is built for irrigation and the farmers are getting water,” Putnam said. “We had bought the area to preserve grassland, and based upon our information, I don’t think it could be economically developed. I think this proposal is premature and lacks any substance at this point.”

Richard Janitell, president of the water board for Fountain Mutual, said the company wants to dredge the resevoir because the 5,000 acre-feet of sand and silt collected on the bottom prevents storing enough water to get the through the irrigation seasons.

“I don’t know if it’s all for sale,” said Janitell, adding that the company needs between $3 to $5 million to do the dredging. “We are simply looking at how to dredge the property.

“We are an irrigation company. We deal with farming and ranching — we are not a developer — and we’ll entertain (any idea) to get this done.”

Not everyone may be in favor of the development, but Tibbetts said he understands that.

“Whenever you have open space, there are homes butting up to it,” said Tibbetts. In regards to the open space bought by TOPS, Tibbetts said, “It seems like a heavy price to pay for visual space with cattle when people need lots for homes.”