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Turf Wars

El Paso County has plans to purchase 522 acres from the developers of Banning Lewis Ranch – the Case family. The land will be used as a county park, complete with dirt bike trails. Some say it’s a decision that would threaten the environment.The Case parcel is located at Corral Bluffs on the north side of Highway 94, west of Curtis Road, near the Aztec Family Raceway.According to a November agenda item presented to the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners by Tim Wolken, director of the county’s parks and leisure services department, $275,000 from the conservation trust fund (funded by lottery proceeds) and $275,000 in regional park fees (paid by developers) will be used to make the purchase. The county also applied for a $320,000 grant from the state’s off-highway vehicle recreation fund.In the grant application, the county estimated the total cost of the project at $1,590,000.The summary also states that the project is a “public – private partnership with Aztec [Family Raceway]. Aztec will provide parking, restrooms, concessions and camping services while El Paso County will provide the land.” Additionally, “El Paso County and Aztec will enter into a management agreement to operate the OHV park with Aztec providing management staff and maintenance services for the OHV park and will pay the County a per user fee for the use of the OHV park.”As part of the deal, Aztec will purchase a 35-acre parcel for $240,000 that will join Aztec’s existing 65-acre parcel with the Case parcel. Waste Management, which operates a landfill on property adjoining the Case property, will lease 135 acres to the county for $1 per year and also provide trail easements on an additional 230 acres.Jackie Hilaire lives on a 45-acre parcel next to the Case property. “I live 5 miles away from the Aztec raceway and hear their loud-speaker announcements,” Hilaire said. “Neighbors who are 6 miles away hear them, too. I don’t think the Case family realizes how much the noise will discourage potential homebuyers at Banning Lewis Ranch.”Hilaire said allowing dirt bikers on the Case property will destroy one of the few places where the 65-million-year-old Cretaceous-Tertiary formation is visible on the surface of the earth. She described the terrain as rugged, with wind-swept hoodoos, box canyons and 400-foot cliffs.”The rock formations contain mammal fossils representative of the first million years of mammals on earth,” Hilaire said. “It’s easy to find completely fossilized palm trees out here.”Hilaire said she was alerted at the end of December to the county’s plans by a neighbor, a month after county commissioners Hisey, Clark, Bensberg and Williams voted to approve the grant application. “I asked all my neighbors if they received a notice, and not a single person received anything in the mail,” she said.Like Hilaire, Howard Kunstle, who owns several hundred acres next to the Case property, was caught off guard. Kunstle said the county put a notice in the “Shoppers Press,” a newspaper published in Fountain. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a copy of the “Shoppers Press,” Kunstle said.”All we have done to date is file for a grant and developed a sales agreement with the Case family. We needed to do that to determine how much the grant should be for,” said Tim Wolken.The sales agreement is not scheduled to close until August 2008, and the grant will be heard in February or March, he said. “There will be plenty of time for public comment,” Wolken added.”We’ve heard from the OHV community loud and clear that they would appreciate one small area of the county where they would have the opportunity to ride. And we hear that. We’re here to serve all people – not motorized and motorized. We’re just trying to provide for that. We’ll involve the general public and all the groups all the way through this process.””It is incomprehensible and unconscionable to think of turning that gorgeous property into a dirt bike park,” Kunstle said. “All you need to do is to go out to Aztec raceway and see how they’ve raped the property. It has no vegetation. The county may say it will be a single trail, but bikers are not known to stay on trails.”The project may also violate the area’s comprehensive plan. “The plan says the area has lots of native American artifacts and bird life and is to be treated with utmost sensitivity,” Kunstle said. “I don’t think riding dirt bikes on that beautiful property is treating it with sensitivity. If that’s sensitivity, I’m Christopher Columbus.”Wolken said the park will consist of areas where OHV use is not allowed. “We haven’t done the land analysis or any kind of master planning … this is essentially the development of a regional park, and the only difference is that there may be some opportunity for OHV use,” Wolken said. “Right now, with the city and county combined, we have 20,000 acres of parkland and 185 miles of trails and none of that allow OHV use.Jeff Cahill lives in the area and said he learned about the proposed dirt bike park from a neighbor.”Golden eagles nest on the edges of the canyon walls. That land is their feeding ground, as well as a safe haven for dozens of mule deer, coyotes, porcupine, snakes, raccoons, jackrabbits, cottontails and other wildlife,” Cahill said.”The deer use the canyon as natural protection for birthing their young. The deer will be frightened away by the noise and pollution. A neighbor has even seen motorcyclists chasing deer and cattle near the existing bike parks.””We want to preserve natural resources and we’re concerned about environmental issues as well,” Wolken said. “We’re going to hire an outside designer who has been involved in OHV design but also involved in natural resource protection.”We want to do this park right and make sure we honor the environment. We’ve got a pretty good track record in the last 37 years in managing high-quality park sites. We’ll certainly do that here, too, with a lot of input from the Trails and Open Space Coalition, the city and all the other groups that are interested, plus the neighbors.”Wolken said if the county enters into a public-private partnership with Aztec, Aztec will have to provide insurance coverage and list the county as an additional insured.To use Aztec’s existing facilities, adults and children must become members and sign a release and waiver of liability, an assumption of risk and an indemnity agreement, as well as a statement acknowledging that Aztec provides no insurance coverage. Membership is $40 per year, and it costs $12 per day to use the motocross track and $4 to use the peewee track.”This is really a family endeavor,” said Byron Wolf, Aztec’s owner. “Moms and dads park their motor home on Friday and are out here all weekend camping and cooking out and letting their kids ride. You’ll see kids with training wheels on their bikes on the peewee track. It’s a lot of fun and very family oriented.”Wolf said the details of how the public will pay for using the trails on the Case parcel hasn’t been worked out with the county. “We may do it on a membership basis or we issue a park pass for the motocross track and the trails,” he said.No decisions have been reached about liability issues, Wolf said. “The majority of injuries are broken ankles, wrists and collarbones,” he said. “We can go a long time without injuries and then they seem to happen in a cluster.””We are talking about the county using taxpayer dollars to partner with a private business in a risky sport for profit,” Hilaire said. “The county, with its deep pockets, could easily be sued because someone has an accident and becomes brain dead.”This is a misappropriation of public funds. I am hoping somebody is going to come to their senses.”

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