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Colorado Springs leaders get citizen comment on Banning Lewis Ranch annexation agreement

January 16, 2018 Updated: January 17, 2018 at 7:07 am
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Banning Lewis Ranch August 8, 2015. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Many Colorado Springs leaders and elected officials agree that the 30-year-old annexation agreement for the Banning Lewis Ranch property must be changed.

What those changes will be, however, remains the subject of some debate. Part of that conversation was held Tuesday night during a town hall at City Hall where concerns were raised about a lack of equity for residents and exacerbating the city's sprawl.

At least two City Council members, Yolanda Avila and Bill Murray, said they oppose the proposed changes.

The changes aim to reduce financial requirements for developers, constraints often blamed for the property's decades-long stagnation.

Doing nothing will inevitably result in more stagnation and development leapfrogging the ranch into places such as Falcon, said Bob Cope, the city's economic development manager.

But making the changes will spur development within city limits and allow Colorado Springs to capture tax revenue from that growth.

"The fact of the matter is, growth will occur," said Peter Wysocki, head of the city's planning department. "And if it doesn't occur (at the ranch), it will occur east and south and eventually even north in the Black Forest area, and we will still result in sprawl."

A new agreement "offered as it is, is better than not making a change at all," said Councilman Dave Geislinger.

The council will decide, perhaps as early as February. And it will have multiple opportunities to tweak the changes before then, said council Administrator Eileen Gonzalez.

Geislinger said it's too early to say whether or how he might want to change the proposal.

But several residents told the council it was bending too easily to the will of developers. They expressed concerns about a possible lack of parks, trails and open space on the property as well as a stress on city services.

Lee Milner, a founder of the city's Trails, Open Spaces and Parks program and a longtime open space advocate, questioned why the changes would not require developers to build and maintain parks on the ranch.

"We're at a point where the owners of the property want something that we have, which is a change in the annexation agreement . and we're giving up that leverage without extracting much back," Milner said. "We'll give up the leverage, and then we'll negotiate from a position of weakness."

Like the current agreement, the proposed changes would require developers to set land aside for parks but not to build or maintain them.

Without new parks, trails and open space, new residents would further strain outdoor spots elsewhere in the city, most of which are already overcrowded, many have said.

But developers likely will build parks even without a requirement because it will make the land more attractive to buyers, said Jeff Greene, the city's chief of staff. Even if they don't, he said, the city can pay to build parks with the revenue expected to come from the growth.

Over the next three decades, development at the ranch could generate about $451 million in revenue for the city, says a 2017 study from TischlerBise Inc., a national economic firm. Subtracting about $403 million in anticipated city expenditures for the area yields the city about $49 million in net revenue.

Those anticipated expenditures allocate about $58 million for parks, trails and open space in the area, Cope said.

But Cope said those projections are based on building only one-third of the 24,000 acres. And Murray has called the proposed changes shortsighted, saying he is uncomfortable changing the agreement for the entire ranch based on projections for a third of the property.

Avila also said development could stress the city's already-strained police, fire and transportation services.

But Wysocki said leaving the agreement as it is also will strain city services, without the benefit of added property and sales tax revenue.

And aside from land at the ranch, the city has only about 6,000 acres that can be developed, Wysocki said. Without changing the agreement, the city will exhaust that remaining land in under a decade, he said.

Others voiced concerns that reducing the developers' fees will leave residents paying to build out the land.

But Councilman Andy Pico, whose district includes much of the property, agreed with Cope, Greene and Wysocki that residents will not see tax increases to subsidize the new development.

The existing annexation agreement, struck in 1988, absorbed the ranch into the city and ensured that developers would either build whatever new infrastructure was needed or would pay the city in lieu of the work.

Because the ranch was so far from the city then - east of Marksheffel Road and stretching from Woodmen Road south to Colorado Springs Airport - planners who wrote the agreement went above and beyond their normal practices to protect taxpayers from footing the bill for infrastructure, Wysocki said.

The agreement "really treated (the ranch) as its own city," Wysocki said during a presentation last week to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. "It was really an island."

In the decades since, development of the ranch has been too expensive for its 40 or so owners, he said. So projects were built elsewhere.

"We have an annexation agreement for circumstances that no longer exist," Geislinger said.

For example, the current pact requires developers to build five fire stations and four police stations, but suggested changes would charge them $2,308 per acre instead for fire and police services.

The yet-to-be-built Banning Lewis Parkway was planned as a major thoroughfare for the property. But now only about 60,000 people are expected to move there, rather than the original estimate of 180,000, so the road doesn't need to be as robust.

While Murray said he wants increased transparency for the changes and more details on how the city will recover its costs, Pico argued that this ongoing process of public meetings has both.

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