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Banning Lewis Ranch annexation agreement raises concern about parks, open space

January 12, 2018 Updated: January 15, 2018 at 4:42 pm
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Looking west across a portion of Banning Lewis Ranch from Highway 24 Wednesday, March 6, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Trails, parks and open spaces are linked to Colorado Springs' overall health and economic viability, a joint study by the city and outdoor enthusiasts found.

While a new annexation agreement for Banning Lewis Ranch could generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue for Colorado Springs, some are concerned the bigger picture involving outdoor amenities might fall by the wayside.

City leaders discussed possible changes to the 30-year-old annexation agreement Thursday morning with the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. The current agreement is often blamed for development passing over the area because fees and other financial restrictions thrust on property owners are so costly.

The decision whether to change the current agreement rests with the City Council.

But Parks Board members and other outdoor advocates raised concerns about whether developers will build and maintain parks and open spaces as work at the ranch moves forward. They fear that the city's already-packed parks and open spaces will be strained further by those moving to town if no new amenities are added.

Those fears echo concerns of sprawl raised by city leaders like Councilwoman Yolanda Avila, who has said she doesn't want new development at the ranch to stretch the city's police and fire departments even thinner.

Parks, trails and open spaces increase property values, reduce stormwater runoff, attract visitors to town, boost quality of life and increase physical activity for residents which can cut medical costs, according to a 2016 joint analysis by the Trust for Public Land and the city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department.

That analysis estimated that already more than 45,000 residents exclusively use the city's parks, trails and open spaces and their physical activity offers annual medical savings of more than $56 million. In addition, access to such amenities supports $32.4 million in annual resident spending on recreational and exercise equipment and supports 88 sporting goods stores that raise $178 million in annual sales while maintaining nearly 1,000 jobs.

Banning Lewis Ranch spans about 24,000 acres and is split between about 40 different owners. Three of them, however, own the vast majority of the land, said Jeff Greene, city chief of staff.

The bulk of the ranch sits east of Marksheffel Road and stretches from Woodman Road south to the airport.

In the next 30 years, development at the ranch could generate $49 million in net revenue for the city while adding billions to its economy, according to a recent study from a national economic consulting firm. The anticipated development would cover a third of the ranch and be home to more than 60,000 new residents.

The amended annexation agreement would require developers to set aside land to be used for parks, but would not require them to build the parks or set up a mechanism to provide ongoing maintenance, said Greene. The current agreement also doesn't require developers to build or maintain parks.

But Greene said developers will likely build the parks because it would make the property more attractive to potential homebuyers.

Trusting that developers will build the parks isn't good enough, though, said Bill Koerner, of the Trails and Open Space Coalition. Requiring the work would better guarantee recreational areas for the ranch's incoming population.

"We have to have (a commitment) now," Koerner said. "They're just kicking the can down the road."

Parks Board members Daniel Bowan and David Siegel also asked about the possibility of such requirements. Board Chair Mina Liebert said she shares similar concerns.

New parks in the ranch would help developers sell their property, but it would also help the entire city, Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition, said during the meeting.

The property shares a border with the Corral Bluffs Open Space, a largely untouched plot of nearly 700 acres that sits on the K-T boundary, an important geologic feature that's 65 million years old and separates the Cretaceous Period of dinosaurs from the Tertiary Period of man. Fossils and ancient artifacts have also been found in the area.

Untouched land in the ranch could become the city's next Red Rock Canyon Open Space, Ute Valley Park or Blodgett Peak Open Space, Davies said.

"These people are going to need a place to play, more than a little pocket park," Davies said. "We want them to have adequate space to get lost and revel in the nature like we do."

Last year the city bought land extending Corral Bluffs to the west with the ultimate goal of connecting the site to Jimmy Camp Creek Park. Part of that relies on whether ranch property owners are willing to sell or donate land to the city.

The biggest piece of the ranch, more than 18,000 acres, belongs to Nor'wood Development Group.

Nor'wood representatives did not return messages seeking comment, but Davies has previously said she's optimistic the company would be willing to preserve some of its property.

Greene said amending the annexation agreement would encourage developers like Nor'wood to negotiate with the city, rather than allowing the land to lie fallow by maintaining the status quo.

But adding a requirement for the construction and maintenance of parks would raise questions about inequity, Greene said. Developers within other annexations, like Briargate or the Flying Horse Ranch, didn't have such requirements.

"You're basically discriminating against one group of developers over another," Greene said.

In addition, it would be more difficult for smaller ranch property owners to fulfill those requirements than it would be for a company like Nor'wood, Greene said.

Koerner said he's more concerned about equity for city residents.

"I'm not seeing any of that," he said. "It all appears to be in the best interest of the city financially and the development community."

Greene said the city will still build parks in the ranch if developers choose not to. That construction would be funded with the revenue expected to accompany the new development.

The council is expected to vote whether to accept the new agreement in February.

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