Guided by a well-executed political strategy, Transit Mix has filed a new application with the State Mined Land Reclamation Board to open a rock aggregate quarry on the historic Hitch Rack Ranch, located south of Colorado Springs on Highway 115.
Last year the MLRB unexpectedly denied the company’s original application after neighboring homeowners, joined by the Nature Conservancy, vigorously opposed the proposed land use. They contended that the quarry would disrupt a peaceful, bucolic neighborhood, threaten residential wells and have severe environmental/wildlife consequences.
As I wrote last year, “The 1,400-acre 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.”
That’s an aspiration that former ranch owner Rosemary Allmendinger might have supported, but the property now belongs to her heirs. After Allmendinger died in 2009, the 1,200-acre ranch was offered for sale at an asking price of $6.4 million, but found no takers — hence the Transit Mix deal.
It’s not clear whether Transit Mix would acquire the ranch outright through a buy option, or whether it would pay the heirs royalties. Interestingly, the subsurface rights on the portion of the property slated for mineral extraction belong to the Colorado State Land Board, which would receive a 50 cents-per-ton royalty on mined aggregate. Over the projected life of the mine, the state should receive about $20 million in payments, which by law would be used for the benefit of public schools.
Although this quarry development proposal differs somewhat from its previous iteration, it may be more difficult for neighbors to defeat. That’s because Transit Mix, now advised by canny Republican political operative Daniel Cole, has offered an attractive menu of quid pro quos to the Colorado Springs community.
If the quarry proposal is approved by both the MLRB and the El Paso County Commission, the company has pledged to close the highly visible mountainside Black Canyon and Pikeview quarries, as well as the Costilla and North Nevada batch plants. As a company press release noted, “the benefits of these actions are major and multiple.”
Six of nine city councilors have expressed support for the deal, including Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler.
“These community benefits are truly exciting,” said Gaebler. “Transit Mix batch plants are no longer a good fit for our downtown or North Nevada, which are among our most dense and growing neighborhoods. This plan will create new possibilities for these areas and the Pikeview area, where our view corridor and recreational opportunities will be significantly enhanced.”
Pledges are fine, but will Transit Mix follow through? Sure, because it makes business sense. The Hitch Rack quarry would replace both the century-old Pikeview quarry and the Black Canyon facility, which has been effectively shut down since 2015. The North Nevada batch plant is probably worth more as vacant ground, while the Costilla facility would be replaced by expanding an existing plant on South Academy Boulevard.
Council, of course, has no say in the deal — but it’s often viewed as a substantially more progressive, more environmentally sensitive body than the county commission, which will have the final say.
So it’s up to the MLRB, which voted 3-2 against its staff recommendation (with one member absent) to reject the previous proposal. Will community support cut any ice with them? Cole evidently believes so.
“We’ll be announcing additional supporters as we go on,” he said.
The MLRB is expected to consider the application in February or April 2018, giving opponents plenty of time to raise money, lawyer up, organize and fight for their long-established neighborhood — and, by extension, for a complex and beautiful remnant Front Range ecosystem that has somehow survived a century and a half of mining, industrialization, road-building and suburbanization.
Can they win the battle? Once again, they’ll have to persuade a majority of the MLRB that the plan’s defects outweigh its virtues, based on legal criteria. But they’ll be motivated, even though Councilor Merv Bennett said there are only 13 residences within a mile of Hitch Rack Ranch.
Merv, tell that to the 300+ people that will show up at the MLRB meeting next year.