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Can we talk about wells, or not?

Article by Patty Lataille

Water – October 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

AT THE AUGUST MEETING of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District (UAWCD), the towns of Buena Vista, Poncha Springs, Salida and Westcliffe, addressed the Upper Ark board with a plea to open a dialogue regarding future growth area boundaries and water provision.

Their request was based on preventing leapfrog development. The municipalities were concerned that wells might diminish their ability to provide city services down the road, and could also undercut their towns’ bargaining positions when working with developers.

Ordinarily towns and cities require all sorts of things from developers, from paved streets to minimal landscaping, to water tap fees, to sidewalks and curbs etc. But if a developer can build right next to a town, without having to annex or tie into the town’s water and sewer systems, then the developer can presumably ignore town standards for things such as roads, drainage, zoning, etc. and he may even be able to play the town and county against each other, thereby gaining all sorts of exemptions and concessions.

Therefore local municipalities attended the August UAWCD meeting, hoping that the local government agencies could iron out any conflicts between them. But that meeting quickly turned confrontational.

In response, Pat Alderton, Town Administrator of Poncha Springs, sent a strongly worded letter to Board members of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District expressing disappointment that a request for open conversation regarding growth areas was misinterpreted by Terry Scanga, manager for the district.

“Since Terry Scanga saw fit to turn our request into an antagonistic attack, we never were able to discuss [the growth areas],” read Alderton’s letter. “We all represent the same people, and it is unfortunate that a conversation about working together for the good of all the people that we serve was thwarted by Terry.”

Scanga, however, maintained that the focus of the discussion was on designated growth areas and boundaries in neighboring municipalities, rather than on actual water provision. In fact, he claimed that the controversial issue of a proposed well augmentation in a subdivision bordering the town of Westcliffe lies with Custer County’s officials, not with the water board.

“Only the county has the authority to develop land-use planning regulations,” said Scanga. “The county commissioners decide on the growth areas and where the boundaries should be. They are responsible for good water management planning, as well as land-use planning. This is not a water issue.”

And therefore Scanga didn’t feel compelled to discuss it.

According to Chaffee County Commissioner Jim Thompson it is a water issue, because water and land-use cannot be separated in our high desert.

“Under state statute,” Thompson said in a telephone interview, “a development has to have a water supply for the county to approve it. The [Upper Ark] District’s augmentation plan makes it much cheaper and easier for the developer to meet that requirement. If you look at our county before 1994, when the augmentation plan started, we had very few rural developments. Now we get them all the time.

“One big problem, though, is that the augmentation allows them to drill new wells, and those wells can draw down the aquifer, so that existing home-owners have to drill deeper to maintain their water supply. Under current law, we can’t protect those homeowners, and the District certainly isn’t protecting them.”

Jeff Ollinger, the only elected member of the eight person UAWCD board, thinks Upper Ark and local water suppliers should co√∂perate. He initially presented his concept of “communication and co√∂rdination” with local water providers back at UAWCD’s April board meeting. The board approved of his idea and made a motion for Terry Scanga to call a meeting with the four municipalities. But when the towns came to the August meeting….

“For the municipalities to come to this meeting and be assaulted by Realtor and developer interests is really unfortunate, “says Ollinger. “It eliminated the idea of the district and the water providers working in close harmony – a brother and sister relationship – in future situations when the water grabbers [Front Range districts] show up.”

OLLINGER SAID HE WAS also disappointed that the district board lost its opportunity to be a leader in working with towns and water providers.

“The board needs to develop policy that will give the manager direction in what it wants done,” Ollinger said. “In this situation, the idea was to develop a relationship with water providers to promote a ‘camaraderie of communication.’ We should have the lines of communication open, so that when the water district receives an augmentation request, it will check with the area provider and be aware of the request falling into a fringe development area that is in the local provider’s service area.”

“This situation shows that the Board hasn’t given Terry specific direction on being aligned with sister water providers. It also reflects his personal interest in aligning with developers and real estate communities.”

But the Wet Mountain Water War is not just about land and water. Round Mountain Water and Sanitation District Manager Charles “Bud” Piquette and board member Chris Haga felt that Upper Ark’s offer of well augmentation to a developer in a planned growth area appeared to be water-and profit-related.

As explained in the Colorado Central July issue, subdivision owner Robert Camper wants to develop fourteen five-acre tracts on land that adjoins the southern edge of the town of Westcliffe. But if this 70-acre subdivision isn’t annexed to the town and connected to municipal water and sewer services, it will be almost impossible for the town to expand in that direction in the future.

SINCE NO FORMALIZED well augmentation plan existed in Custer County, verbal agreements were reportedly made, in which Upper Ark promised not to encroach on well fields within the Round Mountain district — and the proposed Shining Mountain Estates subdivision falls directly into one of the areas that is in a controversial location.

But Robert Camper didn’t want to adopt the city’s subdivision codes because they called for increasing the number of home sites to a much higher density then he desired. Camper rejected Round Mountain’s service proposal due to the high costs involved and because Round Mountain insisted on a minimum of three taps per acre so that the system would pay for itself.

(It should be noted that some of this current controversy is due to recent trends. Growth is costly because towns have to expand sewer systems, replace water mains, and redesign infrastructure; thus growth increases the cost of living for locals. Therefore, in order to minimize the financial consequences of growth for rural citizens who typically make less than their urban counterparts, there’s been a tendency to pass more of the costs on to developers and to charge higher fees for water and sewer taps. But that puts developers who want to provide larger lots or less costly housing in a bind.)

Since the Custer County commissioners approved Camper’s preliminary plan for his subdivision, and Round Mountain wasn’t offering what he wanted, Camper turned to Upper Ark with a request for augmentation.

BUT IN A LETTER to the commissioners, Round Mountain objected that this subdivision was not in the best interest of the town: it would limit economic expansion, as well as restricting future expansion of water and sewer services.

“The Upper Ark is hurting the town [of Westcliffe] by encouraging wells as opposed to pipelines,” said Piquette. “The expansion of infrastructure is necessary in potential growth areas and the Upper Ark promised not to compete in certain potential growth areas if we would support their future water augmentation plan in Custer County. But now the Upper Ark is willing to augment a development close to town, which will stunt the growth of our community. This is a legitimate gripe.”

Round Mountain is requesting that UAWCD leave a minimum of nine square miles of Custer County (encompassing the Westcliffe and Silver Cliff area) out of the future augmentation plan. This would allow for future development in planned growth areas and prevent encroachment and conflict between the two competing water districts.

As it stands now, if the Shining Mountain Estates subdivision is permitted, then there will be a significant strip in the town’s planning area that Round Mountain will not be able to serve. This strip not only cuts the town off from potential future service, it makes the costs prohibitive for future homeowners to access city water and sewer lines. This “oversight” in the planning process is decidedly against the “smart growth” doctrine the towns are espousing which calls for aligning high density growth with existing municipalities.

Land use and planning commissions approve subdivision regulations and water provisions. If Round Mountain has valid concerns that it is not cost effective to provide its services into a low density subdivision, then UAWCD could feasibly offer augmentation instead.

Potential well augmentation plans, however, give the state of Colorado the final say in issuing well permits, based on the number of wells and population density — and if there’s no risk of contaminating neighboring water supplies.

In the case of the proposed Shining Mountain Estates, Round Mountain is concerned that numerous septic tanks might pollute two municipal water supplies that flank Camper’s property.

Scanga claims that municipal boundaries are a land-use issue, not a water issue. But the municipalities claim that if UAWCD augments wells within the boundaries of local towns, it could have serious consequences.

“The majority of taxpayers are affected by the augmentation policy of the water board,” says Alderton. “It negatively affects all of the residents in municipalities who are in essence paying twice, [with taxes to the water district as well as for municipal services] while competing against themselves. While it may be a land use issue, the water board still plays a part in it.”

BUENA VISTA Town Administrator Jerry L’Estrange says, “In this case, the municipalities should approach the counties and request that the planning commission does not approve any large subdivisions adjacent to the town with augmented wells. It only makes good planning sense to have the developers pick up the costs of adding city services within planned growth area boundaries.”

Clearly, the need exists for better communication between the towns and The Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District. A defensive position on either side impedes negotiations and benefits none of the entities involved, including local residents and taxpayers.

Patty Lataille lives in Salida, where she writes when she’s not gathering eggs, teaching skiing and snowboarding, pet-sitting, or guiding the river.