Whether all homeowners in Highlands Ranch will continue to have access to the community's backcountry is a question currently on the table.
After discovering recently that the backcountry had been being financed out of the wrong operating fund since the land was obtained from Shea Properties in May of 2009, the Highlands Ranch Community Association Finance Committee met with its attorneys and sorted out the mess that had been created.
“It’s in the supplemental declarations, when we were conveyed the backcountry to the community association it was written in there that the backcountry is to be brought in as a recreational cost,” said HRCA controller Harry Daughters.
Until recently, however, the HRCA had been using administrative funds to cover the cost of maintaining the backcountry. In order to straighten things out, or “make things right” the finance committee just completed a transfer of $428,850 from the recreational budget to the administrative budget.
If only it was that easy.
As there are five HRCA sub-associations that pay administrative fees only, a total of 1,257 homeowners that live in those communities will be seeing refunds in the amount of $20.56 apiece from the HRCA in late May to pay back the portion of their admin fees that had gone toward the backcountry since 2009.
The homeowners that will see refunds include those who own property in Gleneagles, The Retreat, Silver Mesa, Gold Peak and The Village.
So what does all this mean?
Since the backcountry opened in 2009 the homeowners in those five sub-associations helped financially support it, and because of that were free to use the trail system whenever. But now what? Their fees no longer support it, so does that mean they can no longer use the land?
According to HRCA board of directors chairman Scott Lemmon it is a bit premature to jump to the conclusion that the backcountry will no longer be available to those who only pay administrative fees and do not pay recreation fees.
“That is still part of the decision making process that is going to happen,” Lemmon said. “We are going to take this slow. We are going to ask the delegates their opinions at next month’s meeting and specifically we are going to go after the opinions of the delegates who represent the areas this pertains to. We are a long way from making a decision. We want to do what is right here.”
Beginning the conversation
The April 17 HRCA meeting was the first time board members had an opportunity to discuss the issue. It became a major talking point after being brought up earlier in the night at the Recreational Advisory Committee meeting during Daughter’s report.
As it stands those who pay admin fees only do have the ability to purchase an annual recreation pass which would allow them continued access to the backcountry. However, for those who live in the Palomino Park sub-associations, Gold Peak and Silver Mesa, they already have recreational facilities that their sub-association dues pay for, so would those households want to have to purchase a pass to four more recreation centers just so they can have access to the backcountry?
“My general thoughts are to follow the rules as they are written, and that if you don’t pay the recreation fees you don’t use the recreation assets,” said board member Jeff Suntkin. “But, I personally have horrible heartburn that the open space is limited to Highlands Ranch residents, because it is open space in wide-open God’s country.”
“One difficulty is that there is a liability involved,” responded HRCA CEO Jerry Flannery. “If it were open to the public and there was an accident there is a government immunity that any governmental entity would have that we don’t, so that’s a very big factor in why it wouldn’t be opened up.”
Focusing primarily on the five sub-associations that are no longer financially supporting the backcountry, questions were raised about the possibility of offering them a backcountry-only pass if they want to access it, and in addition what does it mean for those who want to participate in the other backcountry events such as the elk hunt. Are those events, for instance, still open to admin-only homes?
“I think the backcountry adds value to everyone’s homes in Highlands Ranch so my thought processes are that everybody should be contributing toward it and everyone should be able to use it that lives in Highlands Ranch,” said board member Christina Caputo.
Delegate Scott Poulson took things one step further.
“We’re focusing on the recreational portion of the backcountry, but that is an insignificant amount of the land that is actually used,” he said. “I think what does bring value to all of our properties is the idea of Highlands Ranch. At some point we are going to have to make the backcountry revenue neutral. Everybody is in this if we have a fire, so there is a major cost, for everyone, that is involved with the non-recreational portions of the open space.”
New budget issue
Due to the aforementioned fund transfer, the HRCA now has just over $1,000,000 in its administrative fund, but the recreational fund, which had just recently come into the black, is now back in the red to the tune of $242,000.
According to Daughters, the decision has already been made to not attempt to reshuffle assessment dollars to account for the budget shortcomings in the recreational fund this year, but that issue will be studied closely prior to the setting of the 2013 budget.
Starting in 2013 there will also be a reduction of $6 or $7 in annual fees on the administrative side for all homeowners as those fees will be collected for the recreational budget instead. For those who pay both fees annually nothing will change, but for the five communities that only pay admin fees dues will be less.