Perched atop a brown, windswept, dusty butte just south of Denver, sits a big, big rock that, for all intents and purposes, looks like a square, sturdy castle straight from the pages of your child’s favorite fairy tale. Atop this castle sits a star, twenty feet high and twenty feet wide. During Christmas and the summer rodeo season, this star shines with all its glory lighting the way for travelers on I-25 and showing off the town’s most prominent natural feature.
It’s an impressive sight. The rock and the butte it sits on have been preserved as public open space. As such, it offers a well-maintained hiking trail to the top and protected flora and fauna which house a variety of creatures, including the Goss Hawks that nest in the crevices of the rock itself.
More important, this impressive public open space project worked to set the tone for the way the folks at Castle Rock Parks and Recreation and their patrons decided to run their parks and recreation department as their little town started to turn into a not-so-little town in the early ‘90’s.
Managing Population Growth
“We add over 3,000 residents to the community every year,” says Rob Hanna, Director of Parks, Recreation and Golf for the town, “and we’re really running to keep up.”
Hanna’s strategy for dealing with this quick growth is to require folks that are moving into the area to “buy in” to the level of parks and recreation service current resident’s already enjoy.
“We require 20 percent of every development to be dedicated as open space,” says Rob Hanna, Director of Parks, Recreation and Golf for the town. “In addition to that, we get parkland property designated for active parks at a ratio of eight acres for every one thousand residents.”
Hanna says these eight acres (split between neighborhood parks and community parks) sometimes represents 50 percent of the proposed property developed.
“That’s pretty cutting edge,” says Hanna. “In my 20 years in the industry, I’ve never seen property designations that high.”
On top of these designations, Castle Rock also charges an impact fee for parks and a separate impact fee for recreation, which they use to fund capital improvements and new parks and/or recreation facilities.
“The impact fee is a set fee that changes every year,” says Hanna. “This year, every building permit includes a $1,200 fee for parks and a $1,200 fee for recreation. At our current pace of 1,000 houses per year, that nets our department around $2.4 million for capital improvements.”
This sounds like a lot of money, but as Hanna notes, it goes fast. The rest of their funding, for what Hanna calls basic services, comes from their city’s sales tax for operations as line item in the annual budget.
This of course begs the question, “What do the folks in Castle Rock consider basic services?”
According to Hanna, basic service means every resident has a right to expect both active and passive recreational opportunities within a reasonable distance of their home. A reasonable distance is defined as a “safe walking distance” from the home.
In Castle Rock, this doesn’t mean there’s a park every half-mile. Instead, it means Hanna and his staff spend an inordinate amount of time looking at geography, how roads are laid out, what trails connect to it and deciding on a case-by-case basis if there is a safe way for folks in this neighborhood to access the park on foot. Do they have to cross any busy roads? Can kids make the journey without a chaperone?
If the answers are yes, the park location is approved. If no, they find a better spot.
“We get pretty deep into the development process,” says Hanna. “We’ve got 33 square miles in the town and our goal is to connect major developments, neighborhoods, and recreational opportunities with trail systems.”
Not that developers line their properties up in a nice neat row and build them one after the other so the trail system is completed in a nice orderly system.
“We typically require the developers to build these trail systems,” says Hanna, “so at any point in time we’ll have several trails that are disconnected because a development hasn’t been completed.”
Over the last 10 years, a lot of Castle Rock’s trail system has been filled in and, with build-out expected to be completed in the next 20 years (if the current pace continues) each year should bring substantial improvement to the urban network.
Basic Services – Neighborhood Park Facilities
When it comes to actually using those capital improvement dollars to build a new neighborhood park, Castle Rock has a checklist of items for every park. Each new park gets a playground, parking lot, some type of playfield (could be a multi-purpose sports field or designed specifically for smaller activities like t-ball), a picnic shelter, trash cans, picnic tables, a port-o-potty (with a shelter built around it) and one unique element – something not found in any other neighborhood park.
“We try to put something in each neighborhood park that is unique,” says Hanna, “something they can call their own. In one park we have competition level horseshoe pits, in another we have a rock-climbing wall. The idea is to give folks a reason to drive around and visit other neighborhood parks, to get them moving.”
Perhaps the biggest development or newest initiative in Castle Rock’s mode of operation is its continued use of synthetic turf to cut water use and provide a safer playing surface for its residents.
“It’s a big leap for us,” say Hanna. “I mean, when I first got into the business I loved bluegrass. I loved seeing the lush grass, laying in it and just loving that type of product. But, for us, in our climate, the synthetic turf has just been a better solution for our high use fields.”
Hanna says he uses synthetic turf on multi-purpose fields incorporating things like movable backstops and semi-permanent paint to accommodate different sporting seasons.
“For instance, during flag-football, we’ll strip the field for football,” says Hanna. “A couple months later, the paint is gone and we’ll move a backstop onto the field and stripe it for baseball or t-ball.”
Hanna believes, for his climate, the synthetic surface offers a more reliable surface. Which, in turn, means a safer surface.
“If you have to curtail watering a bluegrass field,” says Hanna, “it gets hard and immediately you get more injuries and complaints.”
Of course, synthetic turf isn’t a be-all, end-all solution and it’s not perfect. Hanna and his crew do get complaints because on sunny days (and there’s a lot of them in Colorado) the synthetic surface heats up, but they figure it’s a small price to pay for a consistent, reliable surface.
Like all public agencies, Castle Rock reports to a lot of stakeholders. Currently, Hanna and his staff are struggling with the “not in my backyard” phenomenon that seems to be sweeping the nation. Everybody wants parks. Everybody wants open space but, not in my backyard.
To a certain degree, Hanna’s job is a bit easier in that the park is planned as part of new development, but retrofitting old parks has been an issue. He has no solution yet.
He is also struggling with a way to name parks. He’s putting in so many he would like to find some way to involve the community in naming the parks. That policy is forthcoming, but not yet defined.
And, like others around the country, he is interested in finding ways to fund art in the park projects to liven up his signage, his park themes and the overall look and feel of his park system.
As it stands today, Castle Rock has 12 parks, two main athletic complexes, two outdoor public pools, one community recreation center and a burgeoning trail system. The next 20 years should be interesting, but if the last 10 are any indication, the Castle Rock Parks and Recreation plan is in good hands.