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Banning Lewis Ranch deal spotlights annexation agreement, open space, possible air base expansion

By: Rich laden and katherine Blunt The Gazette
June 11, 2014 Updated: June 12, 2014 at 5:15 am
Caption +
Looking west across a portion of Banning Lewis Ranch from Highway 24 Wednesday, March 6, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Nor'wood Development Group's purchase of the massive Banning Lewis Ranch is far from a done deal, but it's already fueling talk among city officials and optimism among community leaders about what it could mean for Colorado Springs.

Among other topics, the conversation is focused on changes to the ranch's master plan and an annexation agreement that spells out Nor'wood's potential development costs; possible expansion of Peterson Air Force Base; and the potential for more open space.

Nor'wood, a longtime Springs real estate development company, announced Tuesday it had contracted to purchase 18,000 acres of the ranch from Ultra Petroleum, a Houston-based energy exploration company. Ultra paid $20 million for the property in 2011 after its previous owners declared bankruptcy. The company sought to drill for oil on the land, but decided to sell it last year after drilling tests outside the ranch proved disappointing.

Nor'wood has declined to comment on details of the deal.

The 18,000 acres are part of a larger, 21,400-acre parcel that makes up the eastern one-third of Colorado Springs.

The ranch, annexed by the city in 1988, was envisioned as a future home for thousands of residences, businesses and the like, to be developed over a half-century or longer. But the property has gone through several owners since the annexation and remained mostly undeveloped.

In announcing the deal, Nor'wood said it envisions multiple uses for the property.

"We are working toward a purchase and hope to make it a great success for our city and region, but any other details are to be determined," Nor'wood president Chris Jenkins said via email Wednesday.

For now, here are some possible ramifications of the deal, should it be completed:

- The master plan and annexation agreement. The entire ranch was master planned and zoned when it was annexed. Meanwhile, an annexation agreement was approved by the City Council that put the great share of development costs for utilities, parks and other improvements on developers and land owners.

Some real estate experts, however, have said those financial requirements were too onerous, contributed to the delay in developing the property and need to be changed to reflect current economic conditions and changes in the city over the past quarter century.

Nor'wood probably is studying changes it wants in to see in the annexation agreement, said Les Gruen of the Urban Strategies land planning firm.

"They probably, until they had this property under contract, never spent a tremendous amount of time evaluating the financial implications of the annexation agreement," Gruen said. "So they're going to have to figure out what those implications are - how that affects what they can afford and whether they can afford to move forward. You're going to get that figured out before you close the deal."

Some City Council members already say they're open to changes in the agreement. City Council President Keith King said Wednesday the agreement might have placed too big of a burden on the ranch's owner and developers, which ultimately gets passed on to the property's residents and businesses.

"I'm willing to look at it and to say, 'is this really a legitimate plan that reflects the economy of today?'" King said.

And yet, he's not proposing that existing Colorado Springs residents pay development costs, he added.

The issue, he said, is how to make the ranch's development "functional and reasonably priced."

"It's not to say we're going to shift the cost of it at all. It's just saying that we are willing to look at the way that it was put together to make sure that it makes economic sense for both the city and the people who live in it," he said.

City Planning and Development Director Peter Wysocki, meanwhile, said the council already directed city planners to conduct an assessment of the 26-year-old Banning Lewis Ranch master plan - the document that details land uses envisioned throughout the property. That assessment, which could take a year, wasn't triggered by Nor'wood's deal to buy the ranch, but is part of an update of the city's comprehensive plan, Wysocki said.

The assessment will examine proposed land uses and their potential effect on infrastructure needs, he said. But the ranch's land uses also will be evaluated to determine their potential effects on the rest of the city, where infill and redevelopment initiatives also are priorities, Wysocki said.

- Peterson Air Force Base. The military installation, on the west side of ranch, has long struggled to contain its activities to its 1,200 acres. For years, base commanders have sought to expand the base onto ranch property - an objective that could factor into Nor'wood's development plans.

In the face of across-the-board spending cuts, the base could play a major role in the restructuring and realignment of the U.S. military, said Andy Merritt, chief defense industry officer for the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance.

"If the base has more space, that becomes a good thing for the community, especially as the military reorganizes and moves things around," Merritt said. "As (the military) closes bases, additional space would give them the ability to absorb new tenets."

The Colorado General Assembly passed a bill last month that calls for the preparation of a report that explains why defense industry expansion and investment in Colorado serves the interests of the Department of Defense. The bill highlighted Peterson's role in protecting U.S. interests in North America and its importance to the state's economy.

"If (Peterson) is unable to create more space - if not more personnel - while other facilities consolidate or expand, then Peterson would be rated lower in comparison to others," said Tom Binnings, senior partner at Summit Economics in the Springs. "That would work to our detriment."

The defense and aerospace industries employ nearly 68,000 people in the Colorado Springs area and contributes about $8.7 billion to the local economy, according to data compiled by Summit. If Peterson expanded onto the Banning Lewis Ranch, that number could grow.

- Open space. For 31/2 years, the Trails and Open Space Coalition and the Corral Bluffs Alliance have waited for a willing seller to cede a portion of the ranch between Jimmy Camp Creek Park and the Corral Bluffs Open Space.

Susan Davies, the coalition's executive director, said she hopes Nor'wood will be the one.

"We know that we have aspirations, and we know there have been people at the table during these discussions that represent our conservation values," she said. "Other organizations have put forth a vision for that property that would include trail connections and preservation of certain special areas."

Jimmy Camp Creek Park, near U.S. 24 and Constitution Avenue in the Banning Lewis Ranch, lies about 3 miles west of Corral Bluffs. In late 2011, the coalition and the Corral Bluffs Alliance submitted two applications to the TOPS Open Space Conservation program, which proposed the development of parks, trails and recreational spaces between the two areas.

"We have always intended there to be more trails there," Davies said. "The bulk of our purchases have taken place mainly in the west, most of them west of I-25. This is an opportunity to start serving the population in the east."

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