2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Landscaping among nagging problems at troubled Claremont Ranch

Published: April 18, 2014, 10:47 am, by Bill Vogrin
Danielle Keenan has volunteered to landscape this barren, weed-choked parkway near the entrance to her unincorporated Claremont Ranch neighborhood on the east edge of Colorado Springs. As seen April 10, 2014, photo. Courtesy Danielle Keenan.

Danielle Keenan has volunteered to landscape this barren, weed-choked parkway near the entrance to her unincorporated Claremont Ranch neighborhood on the east edge of Colorado Springs. As seen April 10, 2014, photo. Courtesy Danielle Keenan.

Danielle Keenan takes pride in her home in Claremont Ranch, an unincorporated subdivision of more than 1,000 homes just northeast of the Colorado Springs Airport on the city’s eastern edge.

And so it has bugged her that the entrance to the neighborhood looks so bad. Ever since she and her husband bought their home in 2006, the stretch along Marksheffel Road between Constitution Avenue and U.S. 24 has been a mess.

Danielle Keenan

Danielle Keenan

“It never got landscaped,” Keenan said. “We’ve got dirt and weeds growing there. It’s ugly.”

For years, Keenan was understanding because there was construction everywhere and Marksheffel was being widened to four lanes to accommodate growth in the area.

In addition, the drought was choking lawns throughout the region, making landscaping projects a waste of time.

But after sidewalks were poured in 2011, she was disappointed no landscaping ever was done.

“Tons of people drive by there every day and see it,” she said. “Not just our neighborhood would benefit. Everybody who drives by would benefit and get a little color on their drive.”

So she asked if El Paso County would plant some grass along the half-mile stretch of Marksheffel adjacent to the neighborhood.

But county transportation staff said there was no money for landscaping the area.
“So I told them I was willing to take on the cost and work myself,” Keenan said. “I offered to do a 50-foot stretch at first. I’d do a little bit at a time as I have the time, energy and money to improve the neighborhood.”

But again she was disappointed. A county staffer told her there were liability issues that would prevent her from being permitted to tackle the landscaping along the public sidewalk.

“I just wanted to adopt the stretch,” she said.

So she called me and, frankly, I was puzzled. I called County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who immediately put me in touch with Jim Reid, the county’s executive director of public services.

Turns out, Keenan was asking for help from the wrong folks.

“That patch of land along Marksheffel is not county property,” Reid said. “I checked the plat. It’s owned by the Central Marksheffel Metro District.”

That prompted my next question: What the heck is the Central Marksheffel Metro District?

Terry Schooler answered my question. He’s the manager of the district.

It’s a taxing district created by developers 12 years ago to serve as a quasi-municipal corporation covering about 423 acres and authorized to levy property taxes of 40 mills on property within the district.

The Marksheffel district is within the sprawling Cherokee Metro District, also a nonprofit, quasi-municipal government corporation created in 1957 to provide water and services to about 18,000 people in 8,000 homes in Cimarron Hills and other unincorporated communities east of Colorado Springs.

Cherokee has been plagued for years by soaring water rates after it was ordered by a water court judge to abandon four wells that provided 20 percent of its water supply.

The Marksheffel district was designed primarily to pay off a $31.5 million bond issued to finance the widening of Marksheffel Road, a north-south thoroughfare that bisects the district. The idea was that any tax levy revenue left after the bond payment would go to such things as parks and landscaping.

But, Schooler said, the tax levy didn’t provide much more for extras. As has happened in other metro districts in the region, tax revenue hasn’t flowed in as projected as homebuilding collapsed with the economy, meaning improvements such as landscaping have been put on hold.

Claremont Ranch is a neighborhood of more than 1,000 homes in an unincorporated area just east of Colorado Springs. Courtesy FlashEarth.com

Claremont Ranch is a neighborhood of more than 1,000 homes in an unincorporated area just east of Colorado Springs. Courtesy FlashEarth.com

Just now, in fact, the district is getting around to putting playground equipment into a small pocket park at Colorado Tech Drive and Velliquette Lane.

“We’ve had very limited funds to maintain our common areas,” Schooler said. “We’ve chosen this year to spend some money . . . to give the kids something to play on.”
Landscaping the parkway is out of the question, he said.

“When that was graded out, we vegetated with native grasses,” Schooler said. “But given the drought, I guess it didn’t take. It became pretty barren.

“To plant any material and maintain it on common areas is an expensive proposition. Landscaping needs to be watered on a regular basis. Irrigation on a strip like that would run $4,000 to $6,000 a month.”

Given the severe watering restriction in the Cherokee Water District and the high cost of water, the Marksheffel district board opted not to invest in landscaping, Schooler said.

Keenan acknowledged that the water crisis in the Cherokee district has contributed to the death of trees throughout the neighborhood and burned-up lawns.

Indeed, times have been tough in Claremont Ranch, which suffered the county’s highest foreclosure rate in 2013 with a rate of 1.8 percent and has been among the area’s highest foreclosure rates each of the last several years.

It hasn’t helped that the neighborhood has many homeowners burdened by combined property taxes upwards of 100 mills. That’s a tax of $100 on every $1,000 of assessed value of a property!

And while she’s glad the park is getting a playground, Keenan was disappointed to learn the parkway will remain barren.

“We paid $650 in property taxes last year to the district,” she said. “We’re not getting much of anything for our money.”

Given the bleak prospects of any help from her taxing districts, Keenan said she’d be willing to take on responsibility for a 50-foot section at the entrance to the neighborhood.

“I’m willing to take on the cost and work myself,” she said.

“It’s about neighborhood pride. That’s a public area. I think it would be nice to give it a face-lift.”

She said she’d do a little bit at a time and perhaps some neighbors would be inspired to join her.

“I understand money is tight and I understand wanting to conserve water but the lack of anything, dirt and weeds, is not acceptable,” Keenan said.

Schooler invited Keenan to call him so they could talk about her idea for adopting the barren parkway.

“We try to cut down the weeds regularly,” he said. “But that’s the extent of the improvements we’d make on that particular strip.

“If neighbors want, I’d be glad for them to do that. We’re more than willing to cooperate on that.”

Danielle Keenan and the stretch of parkway she'd like landscaped at the entrance to the Claremont Ranch subdivision east of Colorado Springs. Courtesy photo.

Danielle Keenan and the stretch of parkway she’d like landscaped at the entrance to the Claremont Ranch subdivision east of Colorado Springs. Courtesy photo.