Cherokee water district shakes up management ranks

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Water issues in the Pikes Peak region, a high-desert plateau, have long made waves for homeowners and developers.

In the latest news from that front, the long-time general manager of the Cherokee Metro District, Kip Petersen, recently resigned after 11 years on the job. Within hours of that announcement in late June, former Sunset Metropolitan District project manager Sean Chambers was named as Peterson’s replacement.

While the action came as a surprise to some, others saw it as inevitable, the result of increasing frustration with the district’s losses in court, high overhead and to its increasingly dim prospects for finding affordable water sources.

The move followed a Colorado Supreme Court dismissal, also last month, that allowed a water court ruling to stand and cost the district access to eight of its 17 supply wells. It also lost access to clean water generated by a $30 million wastewater treatment plant that it had built, financed and opened in 2009. The water court found that the plant was recycling water supplies controlled by the Upper Black Squirrel Water Basin board.

The shift in management was accompanied by the election of three new board members — Bill Behan, Jan Olson and David Hammers — and signals the beginning of a new phase in the life of the beleaguered district. Cherokee serves about 18,000 users, including bulk customers like Schriever Air Force Base and the Woodmen Hills Metropolitan District.

Because its profile is largely residential with few sales tax-generating businesses, the 400 square-acre enclave has so far not been a candidate for city annexation. If it were to be annexed with access to city water, the district’s issues would be largely resolved.

For now, however, Cherokee’s stakeholders must bootstrap their own future.

That’s why Hammers, a co-owner in the 80-acre Claremont Business Park within the district, called Petersen’s departure after 11 years a “necessary step” in reshaping the district’s fortunes.

He also said he saw a need for new blood and for a less-polarized approach to negotiations with the important Black Squirrel Basin board — suppliers of water to Cherokee and to a number of other east El Paso County metropolitan districts and land owners — and with Colorado Springs Utilities.

The most pressing of the issues creating tension between Cherokee and suppliers is what the district views as an unfair price for the water it buys from them. Its cost in some cases is 150 percent higher than what users in the city pay.

“The reason I got involved was to protect my property values,” he said. “It’s hard to explain the situation to a prospect of a 20,000-square-foot building who’s worried that they won’t have plenty of water.”

Olson, however, was less sure that a new manager facing a lengthy learning curve was needed.

Of Petersen’s departure, she said “he had no choice,” but was awarded at least 14 months in severance pay. His last official day on the job will be July 7.

Chambers, a 32-year-old area native who has spent the last nine years in the municipal water business, said he understands the competing needs.

“My family is here, and I am committed to finding solutions that build quality of life for my water customers, employees and neighbors,” he said.

Chambers acknowledges there will be challenges.

“There are a lot of folks who appreciated what (Kip) did for the district and rightfully so … I can only commit to work tirelessly towards the goal of securing long-term water supply (for the Cherokee Metropolitan District) while concurrently working to resolve the legal and relationship issues with the UBS (Upper Black Squirrel Basin board),” he said in a statement.

Obstacles ahead include budget concerns and a significant amount of litigation, most of which stems from agreements signed in the 1990s. Noting that there’s a “significant amount of work to be done,” Chambers estimates that it will be 2011 before the tide begins to turn — or longer.

“Getting back to terms as good neighbors with CSU and Schriever would be extremely helpful in our effort to move forward on solid ground,” he said.

Petersen said while he was disappointed not to be able to ultimately resolve Cherokee’s issues, based on the new board’s direction, he had to tender his resignation.

“This is my passion, and I’ve learned a lot over the years. This was very difficult but necessary. The entire state – not just Colorado Springs – is looking at major water supply problems in the next decade. Once it hits, it may be too late to fix the problem,” he said.

Griffis/Blessing adds two new clients

Griffis Blessing has been chosen by Pikes Peak Mental Health Center Select Services Inc. to manage the Birchwood Village Apartments, a 60-unit complex at 3618 E. Uintah St.

The property manager was also awarded The Hills Apartments, a 100-unit community at 2570 E. Cache La Poudre, owned by The Hills LLC.

Becky Hurley can be reached at becky.hurley@csbj.com or 719-329-5235. Friend her on Facebook.