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Land & Water by Terry Stokka

County commissioners: For the people or the developers?

Terry Stokka has lived in Black Forest for 29 years. He is president of the Friends of Black Forest, chairman of the Black Forest Land Use Committee and chairman of the Black Forest Water & Wells Committee.

On Nov. 15, the El Paso County Commissioners approved a sketch plan for Flying Horse North that permitted Classic Homes to build 846 homes and a 275-unit luxury hotel on a parcel of ground that had previously been approved for 201 homes and no hotel.†The project is in the Black Forest where the lots are large and the rural feel of trees and wildlife are the norm.†Commissioners Vanderwerf, Bremer and Geitner voted in favor, with Commissioner Williams recusing herself for some unknown reason.† Commissioner Gonzalez voted against the proposal.The issue is whether or not the commissioners were following the El Paso County Master Plan that was approved in April 2021. That plan was supposed to guide development for El Paso County for the next 20 years and supposedly contains guidance for all the different types of land uses.†This was the first real test of the master plan and it failed miserably.†The county spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars and invested thousands of hours of staff and committee time to come up with this colorful stack of worthless paper.†If we are going to create a master plan, why don’t we follow it?The master plan recognizes the Black Forest as a unique place in the county and encourages special attention to keep the densities low and preserve the trees and wildlife. The plan says that lot densities in this area must be at least 2.5 acres per lot. This new proposal has densities of .9 acres per lot.†One criteria for approval is for the proposed development to conform to the master plan.†Several commissioners said the proposal was in “general” conformance and voted for it.†How dense would a development have to be to not conform?†The answer we get from the commissioners and staff is that the plan is advisory.†There are plenty of words like “should, recommend and encourage” in the plan but when the statement is made that the density must be at least 2.5 acres per lot, that sounds more directive than advisory.The plan says that any commercial development should be small scale, close to a major road and serve the needs of the local community.†The luxury hotel is large scale, in the middle of the development and primarily serves customers outside the Black Forest.†Once again the commissioners said it was in conformance to the plan. If the guidance for commercial is not followed, why have any guidance at all?Another criteria for approval is for the development to be compatible with surrounding lots.†The lot densities surrounding Flying Horse North are 5 acres up to 40 acres.†Some of those lots are 2.5-acres, but in those cases the developer set aside 2.5 acres of undeveloped land per lot to keep the density at 5 acres per lot.†Even though Flying Horse North has wisely placed larger lots on the perimeter, the overall density is still five times greater than the 201 homes approved in the original plan.Commissioners Geitner and Bremer stated their belief in private property rights and the right of an individual to do what he wishes with his property. If we followed that principle, we wouldn’t need a master plan at all. Just let everyone do what they want with their property. We need a master plan to guide development wisely. Our freedom to do what we want stops when we harm someone else.†In the case of Flying Horse North, what about the rights of the people next door who will have to live with streetlights, traffic at a five-fold increase and a 3,000-person “town” plopped down next to them?†They moved to the Black Forest for the dark skies and peaceful surroundings. I wonder how these two commissioners would feel if I lived next door to them and had a noisy, oil-soaked car repair shop in my driveway.The only bright spot on this board of commissioners was Commissioner Gonzalez who voted against the proposal because he said it didn’t meet the requirements for conformance to the plan and compatibility with the surrounding area.†Thank you to him for following the plan.I sent out the objections that were submitted to the county to the members of the Friends of Black Forest. I received 693 responses of agreement with the objections but the commissioners were not impressed.†What does it take to get their attention?Unfortunately, our Black Forest Land Use Committee seems to have little impact in changing things for new developments.†We lose almost every issue and yet we keep coming back hoping our voices might be heard.†We feel we are tolerated more than heard when we speak. We thought we had a strong case that was backed up by the new county master plan for this issue but in the end, the vote was 3-1 in favor ó and we lost again.It makes us ask the question, “Who do the commissioners work for, the people or the developers?”

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