Nor'wood Development Group, one of Colorado Springs' biggest and most successful real estate developers, has agreed to purchase the Banning Lewis Ranch on the city's east side.
The company said Tuesday it has contracted to buy about 18,000 acres owned by Ultra Petroleum, a Houston-based energy exploration company that bought the property in 2011. Nor'wood didn't say how much it will pay or when it's scheduled to complete the purchase.
The 21,000-acre ranch - roughly bounded by Woodmen Road on the north, Fontaine Boulevard on the south, Meridian Road on the east and Marksheffel Road - makes up most of the eastern one-third of the Springs, and has gone through several ownership changes since it was annexed by the city in 1988. After the bankruptcy of the ranch's former owners in 2010, the property was sold at auction in two large pieces.
Denver-based Oakwood Homes owns 2,600 acres on the ranch's far north side, which it bought in 2012 from a bank that had loaned money to the ranch's previous owners. Oakwood is developing home sites southeast of Woodmen and Marksheffel roads.
But the lion's share of the ranch was bought by Ultra for $20 million. Ultra planned to drill for oil on the land, but said last year it was walking away from the property and putting it up for sale because of disappointing results in its testing for oil elsewhere in El Paso County.
Nor'wood didn't disclose its plans for the property, but its statement hints at multiple uses.
"The acquisition of Banning Lewis Ranch, under a fiscally viable and responsible land-use strategy blending residential, commercial, and industrial development interests together with preservation and conservation interests in beneficial ways, will significantly enhance our region's opportunities for long-term prosperity and improve our region's quality of life for all citizens."
The statement adds even more references about the environmental aspects of the property - which has gone largely undeveloped since its annexation. Because land is a "non-renewable resource," it "demands thoughtful, careful and long-term stewardship," Nor'wood said in the statement.
"Planning for our community's suburban growth must be thoughtful and deliberate," the company said. "Our region must optimize existing utility, transportation and communication infrastructure and encourage infill development and re-development of existing areas as well as integrating new suburban areas into the broader community.
Nor'wood said its due diligence period will be lengthy and it won't issue its "next public update" until it acquires the property.
"There are many complicated issues as well as numerous unknown conditions that need to be evaluated," Nor'wood said.
The deal - assuming it goes forward - would be significant because it would be the first time in 50 years that a local company would own the Banning Lewis Ranch.
Nor'wood has a track record of large-scale development in the Pikes Peak region. Its projects include the First & Main Town Center, InterQuest Marketplace and other shopping centers; the Nor'wood and Wolf Ranch residential communities that cover thousands of acres on the Springs' northeast side; the Powers Autopark; the Plaza of the Rockies south tower in downtown; and several apartment complexes.
Les Gruen of the Urban Strategies planning firm in the Springs said Nor'wood officials probably see the development of Banning Lewis as a potential legacy project for their company. Nor'wood is headed by chairman David Jenkins; his son and company president, Chris Jenkins; and several veteran members of the Springs real estate community.
Nor'wood officials have had "a strong stake in doing things right and have been doing their best to make things happen during the time they've been acquiring land and developing it no matter what part of town it's been in," said Gruen, who worked for Mobil Oil in the early 1980s when a Mobil subsidiary owned the ranch.
But several questions remain about Nor'wood's purchase.
When the property was annexed in 1988, there was an agreement between the city and the owners that spelled out how it would be developed. That agreement remains in effect, although several local real estate experts have said it's out of date. It's unknown if Nor'wood's purchase of the ranch is contingent on the City Council amending the agreement.
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