By Steven Saint
Over the past five years, the Pikes Peak Justice & Peace Commission has locked horns with local lawmakers eager to drive homeless people out of downtown and happy to give oil and gas companies free rein with the eastern prairie. We’ve twisted in the wind amidst area voters who embrace unlimited- growth economics while refusing to tax themselves to build and maintain the common good.
The list of setbacks dealt by elected officials and voters is long and disturbing: the defeat of Measure 2C in 2009; passage of the No-Camping Ordinance in 2010; shift to strong-mayor system in 2011 (and the subsequent defeat of Richard Skorman by developer puppet Steve Bach); the 2012 permitting of exploratory fracking wells; the unconstitutional No-Solicitation Zone ordinance and the recent opting out of retail sales for marijuana.
What’s a tree-hugger to do short of packing up and moving to Portland?
One alternative is to find the Greenest Place in Town: one neighborhood where peace, justice and sustainability are welcome – and create our own legal oasis.
RELATED: Green Zone: Old North End?
Maybe it could be a special sustainability district put to the voters of that particular neighborhood and funded by property taxes. Or maybe it could be a property owners association with dues and covenants.
One way or another, it’s time to identify and organize the Green Zone, an eco-village where water is plentiful, where soil excels for neighborhood food cultivation, where renewable energy can expand house by house.
How will we find the Greenest Place in Town? By mapping rainfall patterns, well permits, soil quality, parks and open space, community gardens, access to bike paths and transit, and other environmental variables.
We also need to map the human will – where are property owners most likely to embrace sustainability and vote with their dollars?
In fact, that’s where we’ll start. What’s the point of finding our local Garden of Eden if the residents there run you off with a shotgun?
In 2009, Councilwoman Jan Martin led a campaign to pass Measure 2C, an initiative that would raise $46 million a year for city services by increasing property taxes 6.00 mills (and then an 1.00 additional mill per year for four years).
By 2015, a typical home’s property tax would be $210 higher than it was in 2009. Buses would run, park bathrooms would be open, city layoffs would stop.
Despite an impressive grassroots effort, Colorado Springs voters defeated 2C almost two to one, with only 37 percent in favor. The city has been bleeding staff and service levels ever since.
Still, some precincts favored 2C. It won by a landslide (92 percent) in Precinct 386. Unfortunately, this precinct was composed mostly of Colorado College students, none of whom own property in the area.
Adjacent to Colorado College were a handful of precincts that passed 2C with 60-70 percent of the vote. Precinct 9, the rectangle between Wood and Nevada avenues from Uintah north to Del Norte, favored 2C with 71 percent of the vote.
Almost every precinct from the Old North End to Patty Jewett and Divine Redeemer had a 50-60 percent majority hoping to tax themselves to maintain city services. Looking at Zip Codes, these neighborhoods would be in 80903 and 80907, the two areas with the highest concentration of PPJPC members as well.
In 2011, voters elected the city’s first strong mayor (called so because he or she would replace the city manager and basically run the city).
Eight candidates jockeyed for the job, including former city councilman and long-time environmental activist Richard Skorman.
Skorman came in first that April with almost 32,000 votes. He did not win outright, however, because this was only 36 percent of the vote, not a full majority.
Skorman faced the second-highest vote-getter, Steve Bach, in a runoff about a month later. Bach won 53 percent of the vote, picking up most of the conservative votes cast for other candidates in April.
Yet, Skorman won handily in many precincts. He got 96 percent of those Colorado College students in Precinct 386. He also received 81 percent of the vote in Precinct 24 (a stone’s throw from Patty Jewett Golf Course) and more than 70 percent in precincts 9, 22, 23 and 121 – all north and east of Colorado College.
City council districts were then redrawn and precincts shuffled in 2012. The precincts where 2C and Skorman won with strong majorities were merged with others into larger precincts – 176, 177 and 178.
Fortunately, voter sentiment in the area didn’t change. Outside Manitou Springs, these were the precincts showing the strongest support for Amendment 64, the statewide measure to regulate recreational marijuana like alcohol.
So, in terms of voter climate, the Greenest Place in Town appears to be somewhere between the Old North End and Divine Redeemer (Zip Code 80907). Are there enough voters interested in passing a Green Zone to draw a small district and put it on their ballot in 2015?
And what about the rest of the climate – water, land and fresh air?
Sustainability requires lots of ingredients, but water is arguably the most crucial. Water is the greatest limiting factor when it comes to a region producing enough food to feed its people.
Colorado Springs only gets about 30 percent of its water from reservoirs up and down Pikes Peak and other groundwater sources – the rest comes from the Western Slope via 250 miles of Homestake Pipeline.
Importing water makes us vulnerable. Pipelines break and growing populations in the Western states will continue to wrangle over declining supplies.
Well water is a local backup, especially groundwater near the surface. Many houses in the city have both Colorado Springs Utilities water and a well.
Rainwater, while on the decline in the West, is renewable and basically free. Few households take advantage of legal rainwater harvesting and let this resource go, literally, down the drain.
The Pikes Peak region is semi-arid and receives an average of 17 inches per year. It’s not great, but more than El Paso, Texas or Spokane, Wash. or Los Angeles.
To measure rainfall in different parts of town, we turned to Weather Underground.
Weather Underground (not to be confused with the 1960s radicals) is a subsidiary of the Weather Channel which collects weather data from “personal weather stations” all around the country. In Colorado Springs, there are 32 personal weather stations feeding data to the Weather Underground website.
Because of the voluntary nature of personal weather stations, the data is not evenly distributed in every part of town. Ironically, there are no personal weather stations inside the politically green zone identified earlier.
Still, we can discern a general pattern from the 32 stations that operate. We all know it rains more in some parts of town than others.
The Briargate Research Rangewood station near Explorer Elementary recorded the best rainfall to date for 2013 – 16.3 inches. Next highest is the Village 7 station with 12.5 inches. Over the past three years, this area averages 10 inches of rain.
Third place takes us across town to Cheyenne Mountain (almost 12 inches) and Bear Creek Park (10.5 to date). Bear Creek has averaged 15 inches for the past four years. The southwesterly Broadmoor Elementary station recorded about 10 inches and the Black Forest station 9.
So rain seems most plentiful along the mountains and then moves northeast, leaving the southern and eastern areas of town the driest.
Thinking about well water as a sustainability backup, we found well permit data on the state’s Division of Water Resources website.
Since 1950, some 12,800 wells were drilled for domestic use in El Paso County, with 12,329 potentially viable today.
The state maintains a map of well locations and a searchable database of mailing addresses for well permits. Using the database, we first set aside out-of-town mailing addresses because we don’t know where the wells actually are. Then we assumed that most local mailing addresses are likely the properties with the wells.
Sorting by zip codes, we found the general areas in town with the most wells: 80908 (Black Forest); 80918 (Garden Ranch, Norwood, Pulpit Rock, Vista Grande); 80920 (Briargate, Pine Creek); 80909 (Divine Redeemer, Knob Hill, Mid-Palmer Park) and 80907 (Old North End, Patty Jewett, Shooks Run).
Drilling down to the address level of those zip codes, we found the following neighborhoods have the most wells: Park Vista Estates (an unincorporated enclave between Austin Bluffs Parkway and Keller Park), Spring Crest (north of Pine Creek Golf Course), Columbine Estates (Union & Briargate Boulevard) and Mid-Palmer Park (80909).
Lots of water bodes well for sustainability. Now we need arable land.
Having lots of water is most significant if you have a lot of open space and good soil for cultivating food. We’re talking backyard gardens, community gardens and even city parkland that could be repurposed for neighborhood agriculture.
In the quest for year-round cultivation, we should also consider open space and under-utilized commercial properties (i.e. vacant grocery stores) suitable for holding greenhouses.
The easiest data to obtain is city-owned property: parks, residential commons (i.e. greenbelts) and open space. While these areas have existing uses, they all represent largely undeveloped, unpaved land that could be used for community gardens and greenhouses.
The city owns 9,000 acres of parkland, parceled out into seven regional parks, eight community parks (35-175 acres each) and 136 neighborhood parks (1-6 acres). The city also owns two golf courses, Patty Jewett (236 acres) and Valley Hi (175 acres).
As yet, several of these parks are under construction, including Jimmy Camp Creek (693 acres on Banning Lewis Ranch), Tutt Community Park (22 acres near Powers Boulevard and North Carefree Circle) and Skyway (6 acres near Skyway Park Elementary).
Other parks are only sparsely developed, with lots of open fields, including Bear Creek Cañon, 765 acres to the west of the county-owned Bear Creek Regional Park, another 575 acres of mostly open land.
On a neighborhood level, many larger parks have sufficient space for gardening: Old Farm (27.5 acres), Laura Gilpin (23 acres in Stetson Hills) and Penrose (16 acres in Village 7).
The city also maps vacant land – private property that has never been developed. Banning Lewis Ranch is the largest area, some 18,000 acres east of town. There are large swaths of vacant land along Powers Boulevard, North Nevada Avenue (north of Austin Bluffs Parkway) and Fillmore Street (west of I-25).
So which neighborhoods rank the best for land?
Based solely on the amount of public land suitable for community gardens, we’d rank the southeast quarter near Bear Creek Regional Park, followed by the eastern edge where Jimmy Camp Creek and Tutt parks are being developed. This area also has Coleman Park (Sky Sox Stadium) and seven other relatively large neighborhood parks.
Briargate also has potential with Rampart Park orbited by a dozen neighborhood parks.
How about soil quality? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, most of El Paso County’s 1.2 million acres is not prime farmland. But there are several pockets of loam, sandy loam and clay loam deemed “prime farmland” if irrigated.
These pockets include the Broadmoor, Shooks Run, Divine Redeemer, Old North End, Vista Grande, Old Farm, Rustic Hills, Henry Park, parts of Southgate and the Powers Corridor south of Platte Avenue.
Overlaying open space with soil quality, the three best areas would be the Broadmoor, Old North End/Patty Jewett and Mid-Palmer Park/Rustic Hills.
Colorado Springs is the 34th most “walkable large city” in the country, according to WalkScore.com. Our Walk Score is 45 out of 100.
The Seattle-based WalkScore.com also divides our city into 14 neighborhoods or areas. Each neighborhood receives points based on the distance to amenities such as restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores, schools and parks. Amenities within a quarter-mile receive maximum points and no points are awarded for amenities further than one mile.
If you can’t walk, ride a bike. WalkScore also calculates Bike Scores to measure whether a location is good for biking. Again on a scale from 0-100, Bike Scores are calculated by measuring bike infrastructure (lanes, trails, etc.), hills, destinations and road connectivity, and the number of bike commuters.
Adding the two scores together gives us what we’ll call a “Sustainable Transportation Score” – STS, for short. Combining Colorado Springs Walk Score of 45 and Bike Score of 46 gives the region an overall STS of 91.
Which neighborhoods have the highest STS? The area called “Central Colorado Springs” has a better-than-average STS of 120, the best in town. This relatively large region is defined by WalkScore as the rectangle bordered by Austin Bluffs Parkway on the north, Lake Avenue on the south, Interstate 25 on the west and Union Boulevard and Circle Drive on the east.
In Zip Code designations, this is 80903 and 80907. Second place goes to Old Colorado City (with a 114 STS), third to “East Colorado Springs” (east of Circle Drive to Powers Boulevard, between Platte Avenue and Stetson Hills Drive) with a 102 STS, and fourth to “Southeast Colorado Springs” (east of Circle to Powers, between Platte and Milton Proby Parkway) with a STS of 93.
All of the other eight neighborhoods rank below the city average of 91. While mass transit as we know it is not sustainable (i.e. it depends on importing fossil fuel from somewhere else), it is a more fuel- efficient means of transportation than a car. WalkScore has not yet awarded Transit Scores to the 14 neighborhoods of Colorado Springs, but we can see some patterns from the Mountain Metro Transit map.
The city bus service is a hub system in which most bus routes pass through downtown. Of the 18 current routes, 14 end at the Downtown Terminal. So, the closer you live to downtown, the more bus routes you can ride.
As you move out farther from downtown, the number of routes declines. Two routes run through the Old North End and three through Shooks Run and Mid-Palmer.
Seven routes stop at the Citadel Mall in East Colorado Springs, three that do not go downtown but head north, south and east.
In contrast, two bus lines run southwest into the Broadmoor/Cheyenne Mountain area and only one makes it to Briargate.
Official transit scores will most likely match those of walking and biking: Central Colorado Springs is the best, followed by East Colorado Springs and Southeast Colorado Springs.
Most of the environmental data indicates a swath of Central Colorado Springs straddling Uintah Street from Colorado College to Union Boulevard is your best bet for water, land and walkability. It also happens to be the best area for voters interested in sustainability, willing to put their money where their planet is.
So how do we proceed in creating a real eco-village – a Green Zone?
There are two basic approaches: a special district or a property owners association.
A special district (approved by voters on a ballot) would collect new property taxes to create a fund for neighborhood improvements. A property owners association (homeowners associations – HOAs – are the most common) collects mandatory fees to create the same type of fund.
The fund could finance community gardens, solar gardens, recycling services, better bike lanes and trails, water infrastructure, household energy audits and conservation retrofits. The residents of the zone would decide democratically.
Staff could be hired to advance the Regional Sustainability Plan – even if it’s only in one neighborhood, census tract or precinct. If it’s done right, other neighborhoods will want to vote themselves in!
Are you excited about turning your neighborhood into the first Colorado Springs Green Zone? It all starts with a house meeting of friends and neighbors. Call the PPJPC (719) 632-6189 or email email@example.com to get going.
Steven Saint is the executive director of the PPJPC and coordinator of the Green Cities Coalition. He wants to sell his house on the southeast side and move into the Greenest Place in Town.
Main story illustration by Bill Fisher for Dream City, a grassroots, project to create a brighter future for the Pikes Peak region.