Woodland Park Leaders Ready to Take a Dive with Mega Aquatic Center – Rick Langenberg

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Even with some stern objections from local residents and neighbors, the city of Woodland Park is ready to take an official dive and splash away with its proposed aquatic center site, near the high school.

By a 6-1 vote, the council passed the initial reading of a detailed contract, ordinance and intergovernmental agreement last week that sets the wheels in motion for the $15 million project to be housed at property owned by the RE-2 School District. The site is comprised of a 76,000 square-foot area, located at 151 Panther Way, across from the high school and near the bus turnaround area.

A public hearing has been set for Dec. 17. That will mark the final D-day for opponents of the site to mount a final political attack.

Opponents, including some residents in the area, will face a tough challenge in convincing leaders to pick another location, as the current council appears to heavily support the school site.

With the new deal, the city will obtain the property at no cost. In turn, the city will allow the school district to use the facility for competitive swimming meets and for physical education classes with no charge. But the school must give the city 25 percent of the fees they generate from these events.

Under the proposed deal, the city will still foot the entire bill for doing the necessary infrastructure work and for constructing the facility. The school will work out a cooperative arrangement for new aquatic center visitors to use the high school parking lot.

Concerns, though, have been raised about parking arrangements, traffic and the use of the facility, when the school is in session. At a previous meeting, resident Juliann Mills, who lives near the proposed site, heavily objected to the school location, citing serious traffic problems in the area and questioned having this facility built on RE-2 property. She stated that many residents in the area oppose the location. “I do believe we are at a point in this project that we need to seriously consider a more feasible location. The high school location has many negatives,” said Mills, when addressing the city council.

She argued that the city had a much better choice with an alternative location off Hwy. 67.

At last week’s hearing, no public comment was taken, which is the customary practice for the initial posting of new ordinances.
Councilman Phil Mella cast the sole dissenting tally. Mella stated that he didn’t have a problem with the location, but was bothered by the process that occurred in recent weeks when the site was selected. “The process was not in keeping with clear transparency,” said Mella. He indicated that he would have preferred more public input for the final site location decision.

Since he has been appointed to the council, Mella hasn’t hesitated in grilling City Manager David Buttery on a number of fiscal issues. He also emerged as a critic of recent plans to expand the project from the amenities initially promised to the voters.

The council mainly just accepted the contract and listened to the overview provided by city attorney Erin Smith. Plus, two council members who serve as coaches for the school district, Mayor Neil Levy and Councilman Noel Sawyer, didn’t hesitate in casting tallies in approving the initial reading of the contract.

This lack of public comment probably won’t occur on Dec. 17, with verbal sparks expected to fly.

A Lengthy Battle

Securing a site for the aquatic center has become the main hurdle of the project. Woodland Park voters strongly approved a ballot issue, allowing the city to incur debt to build a $15 million facility (with interest payments), but they didn’t pick a specific location.

For months, the city wanted to build the facility downtown in the Woodland Station area. This was touted as the best location for visitors and residents, and a good way to revitalize this anchor spot of the downtown development district. But Buttery opted to pull the plug on this location due to soaring infrastructure costs the city faced in making this spot a reality.

The city then agreed to resume talks with the school district for a specific RE-2 parcel, which was examined in the past and promptly rejected.

In recent meetings, Buttery has expressed much confidence in this location, and has assured residents it would represent a community aquatic center and not a school facility. Moreover, he has stated that the numbers work out well for the city.

Even if the council finalizes this location on Dec. 17, the deal must overcome a number of regulatory steps. Under provisions of the contract, the city has the right to obtain full details regarding any problems with this site pertaining to environmental hazards, soil deficiencies and other physical problems.The real estate transaction is expected to close on March 15.

If the deal moves forward, the city may be on track to have a new aquatic center grand opening in 2017.