The outcome was set in stone, supporters believed. But opponents never gave up. And the opposition prevailed.
“I was counting votes,” said a member of the Highway 115 Citizens Advisory Committee.
“Sometimes I thought they heard us, sometimes I thought not. It was up and down, then they went into closed session to consult with their attorney, then they came back to the dais and began their deliberations.”
The Highway 115 committee was formed in response to Transit Mix Concrete’s plan to open a massive quarry on the Hitch Rack Ranch, a historic 1,200-acre ranch located south of Colorado Springs off Highway 115. The grassroots group had weekly meetings for six months, preparing for multiple hearings on the quarry proposal, an idea that was fiercely opposed by nearby residents.
And they were fighting an uphill battle. Four separate governmental bodies had to approve the deal, but many observers thought it would be a slam-dunk for the company.
First, the State Land Board, which owns the subsurface rights to the property, routinely approved it. The staff of the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety had recommended board approval. Next up: a formal hearing before the board on Oct. 27.
So confident were division staff members that one said, “The board follows our recommendations 99 percent of the time.” Clearly, staff and the applicant thought that board approval was without question — they were prepared for a lengthy, tedious meeting, but not for defeat.
Transit Mix, which owns the currently inactive Pikeview quarry in northwest Colorado Springs, apparently had a strong case.
The company noted that no quarries currently operate in El Paso County; construction aggregate is essential for building, highway construction, maintenance and dozens of other commercial or industrial uses.
Unlike the Pikeview “scar on the mountain,” the Hitch Rack quarry would be largely hidden from view. It would be capable of supplying the El Paso County’s aggregate needs for 50 years.
Getting past the mining board would virtually seal the deal. The El Paso County Board of Commissioners would make the final decision, and neither Transit Mix nor the CAC believed that the county commissioners would vote to kill the project.
But no one had counted on such well-prepared, fierce opposition.
The committee was ready. Two hundred opponents packed Centennial Hall at 9 a.m. Oct. 27, watching quietly as the CAC launched a coordinated, carefully planned series of attacks on the project. It wasn’t the kind of “not-in-my-backyard” presentation that features outraged homeowners pleading for mercy, but an evidence-based assault on the legal, scientific, operational and environmental flaws the committee saw in the proposal.
The board heard compelling testimony from hydrogeologist Chuck Norris, the Nature Conservancy’s John Sanderson, committee members Warren Dean and Tom Fellows, as well as attorneys Carrie Bernstein, Amanda Bradley and Steve Mulliken. After two days of hearings, it was time to render a decision.
The application was denied on a 3-2 vote.
Stunned and dismayed, Transit Mix officials have yet to decide what to do. They’ve invested money and time in the Hitch Rack site, so they may appeal the decision or decide not to throw good money after bad.
If they back off, there appears to be a way forward to preserve the iconic ranch and the pristine canyon that the quarry would have forever destroyed. In his testimony, Sanderson noted that the Nature Conservancy would be happy to work with the ranch owners to create a conservation easement on the property.
At present, the ranch belongs to the heirs of Rosemary Allmendinger, the steely, plainspoken woman who owned the property for decades. Whatever deal the present owners made with Transit Mix is unknown — it may be that the company has an option to buy the property.
In any case, a conservation easement will substantially reduce the value of the ranch. And it will be expensive.
As Sanderson pointed out, the ranch is part of a larger regional ecosystem, including the adjacent 1,600-acre Nature Conservancy-managed Aiken Canyon Preserve, the Beaver Creek Wilderness study area and the Ingersoll Ranch. Adding the Hitch Rack Ranch would further integrate and preserve this last remnant of a pristine Front Range landscape.
So, if Transit Mix gracefully withdraws from the deal, it’s up to the public — foundations, private donors and open space and environmental advocates — to find the money. The Highway 115 committee has won a battle, but not the war.
Permanent protection? It won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile is easy. Just ask the hundreds of cantankerous loners on Highway 115 who joined hands to save their homes.