In probably the most difficult decision the Teller County Commissioners have faced in 2013, the elected leaders by a tight 2-1 vote agreed Monday evening to change the Divide growth map and grant the Golden Bell Camp a huge rural resort designation.
With this verdict, the initial path is clear for a substantial camp expansion, capped by a proposed large chapel, staff housing, more infrastructure and a slew of new recreational amenities, such as sports fields, along a mostly vacant 160-plus-acre area, to be operated by the Golden Bell Camp and Conference Center. The Golden Bell, which is affiliated with the Colorado District of the Church of the Nazarene, had sought to change this area from a rural land designation to that of a rural resort. However, in order to get the go-ahead, Golden Bell needed to change the Divide Region Growth and Conservation Map that is part of the official Teller land use regulations.
But the decision wasn’t easy, as the elected leaders struggled over this issue during hearings held for two days in the last week and a half. The controversial expansion bid culminated with a final showdown Monday evening. However, the Golden Bell still must undergo more hearings to obtain the necessary permits. Also, many of the residents who opposed the project have vowed to continue the fight and may even file an appeal with the court. “We will fight it every step of the way,” promised Thomas Worley, the organizer of a petition drive against the Golden Bell map change request, signed by 173 residents, following Monday’s decision. “The community has spoken. We are the community.” He said the group also may review its legal options.
The group had an ally in Commission Chairman Dave Paul who cast the sole dissenting vote. Paul, in a detailed analysis, stated that he didn’t believe it was fair to ignore the sentiments of community residents who spent much time compiling their growth vision for Divide. “This is what the people of Divide want,” said Paul, in reference to a growth plan that designated this part of the area as rural and devoid of any commercial activity.
Moreover, he didn’t believe it was the commissioners’ right to change this designation for the sake of advancing the enterprise of an individual property owner and business. He contended that when Golden Bell purchased this additional property, they knew how it was zoned.
The other two commissioners, though, indicated their hands were tied based on Teller’s growth management policies. Of all three elected leaders, Commissioner Marc Dettenrieder appeared to struggle with the decision the most. As someone who lives near a camp site area, he said he sympathized with the residents’ concerns over noise, traffic, wildlife and water. But he cautioned that the detailed questions surrounding impacts for some of the specific expansion ventures of Golden Bell will be addressed at a later date. “I struggled with this,” said Dettenrieder. “The impacts come after the fact. This is the result of the process.”
Vice-Chairman Norm Steen cited concerns over property rights. He said the Golden Bell met all the requirements for changing the region’s growth map.
A two-day affair
The Teller commissioners’ decision followed more than five hours of discussion and often heated debate regarding the future of the Golden Bell Camp and Conference Center. Due to the amount of testimony, an earlier scheduled hearing had to be continued on the evening of July 8. This marked the first evening hearing the commissioners conducted in recent years.
The proponents, led by John MacKay of the Colorado Springs-based Higher Ground Designs and Golden Bell Executive Director Doug Pearson, lauded the proposed map change and new designation as a rural resort as necessary for the camp’s future success. Moreover, they touted the change as a good development for the community and a bonus to the camp, which they estimate attracts thousands of visitors a year.
With the proposed changes, the stage would be set for the camp to develop a 9,000 square-foot chapel within two years, and to have a future activity center expansion, new maintenance building, staff housing, a retreat center, more recreational areas and infrastructure. Preliminary estimates indicate that camp activities could increase by 15 to 20 percent with the possible expansion.
But both the camp representatives and county staff members cautioned that no specific expansion proposals have been approved and the current request merely dealt with a change to the Divide Region Growth and Conservation Map. “We are not trying to bring development without taking the necessary steps” said MacKay. “We are not talking about a subdivision. This is limited development,” he added. “We are involved with the community,” said Pearson, who cited Golden Bell’s long-standing history in Teller County and Divide since the late 1960s. He said the camp has opened its doors to many community groups, non-profits and residents, and is used quite frequently for military retreats. According to both Pearson and MacKay, the camp’s swimming pool and mini-golf course are quite popular with local residents.
But with the changing economic dynamics for camp and retreat facilities, they stressed that Golden Bell has to take the next step in order to financially survive. They indicated the map change request was precipitated by the purchase of a large chunk of vacant land, totaling more than 160 acres. And with the new possible expansion, they emphasized that the majority of the property will consist of open space.
The camp’s future plans got a boost by Bill Blackburn, a spokesman for the Divide planning advisory committee. “It makes a lot of sense,” said Blackburn, in describing Golden Bell’s phased approach to development. He made it clear that the committee’s lack of response to the new map change should not be equated with a lack of support. “It doesn’t mean it is a no-growth committee,” said Blackburn, who mentioned some misunderstanding regarding the group’s function and the community’s overall growth map. In fact, based on his comments, Blackburn indicated that the project was informally endorsed by the planning committee.
Some residents, who attended hearings on both days, spoke in favor of Golden Bell’s request, citing the camp as a great neighbor and a good asset to Teller County. They emphasized the camp’s community-oriented attitude. “To succeed, you need to change,” said Jane Sanborn, owner of Sanborn Western Camps. She cited the many community and financial benefits camps and retreats like Golden Bell provide. According to Sanborn, Teller County now bustles with nearly 20 camp and retreat facilities, an amount that employs nearly 500 people and generates annual revenue of more than $3.5 million.
But similar to the previous hearings before the Teller County Planning Commission, the Golden Bell encountered much opposition from local residents who expressed big concerns about the impacts of the future expansion. And as a religious non-profit group, with ties to the Church of the Nazarene, the opposing residents noted that the taxpayers of Teller County are subsidizing these camp expansion pursuits. They noted that Teller now ranks as one of the state’s leaders of religious non-profit groups that doesn’t pay any property taxes. A petition campaign was orchestrated, asking the commissioners to deny changing the growth map. The group, which called itself, the “Committee for the Preservation of Rural Lifestyle,” received 173 signatures prior to Monday’s final hearing.
“The impacts are severe,” said Steve Storrs of the Divide area. Specifically, he questioned the impacts on water with a 20 percent increase in camp activity. He questioned if the camp had enough water resources to warrant this much growth and to assure the proposed activities don’t force their neighbors to go dry. According to his calculations, the community would benefit more from just having a subdivision on the lands acquired by Golden Bell.
Many residents maintained that the camp’s pursuit would adversely affect the rural character of Divide. “The idea that this won’t impact the community doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Denise Worley of Divide, who cited a laundry list of potential problems. “We will be impacted.” She emphasized the strong support against the project, evident through the vast amount of signatures collected against the Golden Bell expansion bid in such a short period.
These sentiments were echoed by other residents who see the project as a slap in the face to the Divide community. The residents mostly expressed concerns over water, roads, traffic and wildlife. “Normally, we are all in favor of private businesses operating as they wish; however, this is a tax exempt church operation. The road is deteriorated with log truck traffic, well drillers traffic, garbage trucks and big RVs from Golden Bell’s campground,” stated Adrienne and Tom Pohrte, in a letter submitted to the commissioners. “All of that will increase dramatically. Golden Bell will be allowed to up the destruction and pay for nothing. We feel this expansion is a horrible idea.” The commissioners weren’t shy about asking questions during the two days of hearings. This marked the new board’s first major encounter with a major land use battle.
Steen initially wondered what would happen to Golden Bell if they couldn’t get the map change and the rural resort designation. In some ways, he compared their bid to that of a future park expansion. Paul, meanwhile, grilled the camp proponents on the issue of timing, and why they didn’t try to alter the map shortly after acquiring the land, or make it contingent on buying the property. Of all three commissioners, he appeared the most critical of Golden Bell’s future pursuits. He continued to emphasize that the Divide growth map identified this property as strictly an area for the establishment of rural lands.
But no one, including the local residents who spoke in opposition against the expansion, criticized Golden Bell for their current role in the community. Unlike the showdown over the Wommacks Ministries development off Hwy. 24 in Woodland Park, few questions surfaced regarding the religious mission of Golden Bell.
The next showdown for Golden Bell will occur in August, when its plans are addressed by the Teller planning commission for developing a new chapel.