The Middle of Somewhere

The Plains Conservation Center is on the run from sprawl.

For more than fifty years, the Plains Conservation Center has been trying to preserve a remnant of the eastern Colorado high plains. Unfortunately, the organization succeeded -- and now a remnant is all that's left.

The center, which once owned more than 1,600 acres of shortgrass prairie near Hampden Avenue and Gun Club Road, hosts programs for students and anyone else interested in learning what the land looked like when settlers first arrived here. It offers hayrides, moon walks, nature hikes and tours of a reconstructed sod house, a one-room schoolhouse and a blacksmith shop. It provides a sanctuary for pronghorns and prairie dogs, coyotes and jackrabbits, burrowing owls and red-tailed hawks. It gives people a chance to get far away from the noise and clutter of the city.

At least, it used to.

Only a few years ago, executive director Tudi Arneill would give people directions to the center by telling them to take Parker Road southeast to Hampden, then follow Hampden east, east, east until the asphalt ran out. Now she can simply tell them to hop onto E-470, the ever-growing tollway that wraps around the southern metro area. Krispy Kreme, Park Meadows, the Denver Tech Center, the Plains Conservation Center: It's become just another interstate exit.

"Our neighbor to the north is Buckley Air Force Base; our southern border is being developed as residential, although there's already a sewer-pump station there now," says Arneill. "Our western border is a subdivision and power lines, and our eastern border is delineated by E-470."

Although the board of supervisors for the West Arapahoe Soil Conservation District, which runs the center, had been planning since the mid-1980s for the day when development would overwhelm the site, the construction of the tollway finally convinced the WASCD that it was time to move on. "Most of our board really felt that E-470 was the death knell for the center," Arneill says. "It bisected us from the wildlife corridor that continues to the southeast. It put up a barrier so that we were no longer contiguous with this open-space corridor."

So in 1997, the WASCD sold more than two-thirds of its land, about 1,100 acres, to the City of Aurora for $2.75 million. In return for getting the land at a below-market price, Aurora agreed to keep it in its natural state for as long as the city exists. In other words, Aurora can't develop the land; it can't turn it into soccer fields or baseball diamonds, and it can't dump trash there. The city also agreed to lease the site back to the center at $1 a year for a minimum of fifteen years. (Approximately eighty acres, where the center has most of its buildings, was leased back for fifty years.)

The idea was that the deal would allow Aurora to acquire some open space, and the WASCD would use the money from the sale to buy a larger chunk of land farther east, where streetlights couldn't be confused with moonlight.

But in order to come up with enough money to buy that chunk of land, the center would have to pay a high price. It allowed the organization's remaining 490 acres to be annexed into Aurora, and the acreage is now under contract to a developer who plans to turn it into a massive upscale subdivision called The Conservatory, which could eventually hold 1,426 homes.

"I expect to be roundly criticized by the homeowners who are already in the area, and by the people who have been coming out to the Plains Center for a long time," Arneill says.

When the center's plans were first announced two years ago, homeowners in the two subdivisions that back up to its western side complained that they'd been led to believe they were living next to a piece of open space that would never be developed -- and they'd paid a premium for that.

"It's a tough one," Arneill says. "But in order to talk about preserving a viable piece of the prairie, in order to keep the Plains Center going, we had to sacrifice 400 acres. I hope people realize this was an incredibly brave thing for the center's board of supervisors to do. This is for the greater good."

Elizabeth Richardson, manager of public affairs for Colorado Open Lands, agrees. "Part of what the Plains Conservation Center wanted to do was to preserve the large mammal population, the pronghorn and the mule deer," she says. "But when you put in a major highway like E-470, it means that most animals can't cross. And pronghorns, even if you give them a large underpass, they are nervous about using it. The pronghorns that are on the Plains Center now, they may be cut off."

Colorado Open Lands is a nonprofit organization that works with private landowners, as well as cities and counties, to protect open space. Richardson says she'd like to see a large swath of land east of the suburbs preserved so that plants and animals native to Colorado aren't pushed out entirely. At one time, she'd hoped that the original Plains Conservation Center would be a part of that land, but those hopes were dashed by E-470.

The center used to be "beyond civilization," Richardson says. "What you have now is urban growth coming out to meet it. So the Plains Conservation Center is doing the right thing. It's time people realized how special the prairie is and to be proud of it. To be able to give kids the experience of what the plains were really like, they had to go out further. They've got enough land where they're going to be able to keep the prairie ecosystem in good shape."

The center's new site is on 5,700 acres located thirty miles east of its current location. Made up of what used to be ranch land, the property is split by West Bijou Creek running north to south and the Arapahoe-Elbert county line running east to west. Eventually the center would like to buy 3,000 to 5,000 additional acres of adjoining land.

"It was amazing that we could even find a site in the year 2000 that is large enough to be self-sustaining, to create a viable habitat," Arneill says of the Bijou property. "We were able to find ranchers, though, who were sympathetic to the cause. They didn't want to see their land subdivided into 35-acre ranchettes."

The center needed more than $3 million to buy the Bijou site, however, so the purchase won't be completed until it gets its money from the sale of the 490 acres to The Conservatory's developer. And before that land can be sold, Aurora needs to approve the developer's plans. The process has been long and complicated, but the Aurora City Council may make its decision as early as July, says Rick Solomon, a planner for the city.

"It's a very large piece of ground," Solomon says. "It's one thing to look at a subdivision of twenty or thirty homes, but this one is over 1,400." Because of the neighborhood concerns, only single-family homes -- no condos or apartments -- will be allowed in The Conservatory, and those homes must be well-spaced and hold to specific design standards. The developer, an investment group represented by Chris Elliot, former president of the Colorado Association of Home Builders, is also looking into creating a special taxing district that would pay for quick landscaping.

No matter how careful the developer may be, though, Arneill isn't looking forward to the construction project -- and since many of the center's activities will continue on the property now owned by Aurora, she'll be in a position to watch it all. "As soon as you lay asphalt to get rid of the prairie dust, as soon as you plant green grass so your kids can play soccer, you eliminate native wildlife, plants and trees," she says.

To see this happen to land that once represented a holdout against development will be even harder. "In my head, I understand completely," she adds. "But in my heart, I am just crying. My kids grew up here; I gave fourteen years of my life to this site. I love this land. But the new site is so spectacular, I hope I can get over it."

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