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GUEST COLUMN: Craft a 21st-century plan for Banning-Lewis Ranch

By: Dave Gardner
January 30, 2018 Updated: January 30, 2018 at 4:05 am
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Colorado Springs City Council is being asked to approve significant amendments to the Banning-Lewis Ranch annexation agreement. This agreement was forged with the developer who owned most of the ranch and wanted it annexed in 1988.

The ranch is roughly 24,000 acres, very little of which has been developed. City planners tell us we need to relax the requirements made of the developers to jump-start development.

Beyond Banning-Lewis, there are only about 10,000 acres of developable land left in the city, they tell us. They're apparently not ready for Colorado Springs to get out of the growth business.

Banning-Lewis represents about 20 percent of the landmass of Colorado Springs, so altering the annexation agreement is not a minor, administrative detail.

It will play a large role in defining how our city looks and operates for the next 100 years. It's wholly inappropriate for the agreement to be renegotiated behind closed doors, and then rushed through approval with just a few months of public daylight and only a pretense of public input.

The last time something like this was attempted, then-Mayor Steve Bach put together City for Champions behind closed doors and then expected the public to rally behind it. The outcry and resistance ought to have been a lesson.

Our city's residents care about our town. We care about its beauty, safety, and quality of life. We want to be involved in big decisions about these, and about how our city balances its budget while providing the services we expect.

Proponents rationalize the proposed amendment with a Cost to Serve Fiscal Impact Analysis for Banning-Lewis. This analysis projects a city revenue surplus averaging $1.6 million dollars annually over the next 30 years from development of the ranch. That estimated surplus represents about .5 percent (1/ 200th) of the current city budget. This strikes me as fairly insignificant if one is trying to use "prosperity from growth" as a motivation to relax the agreement's requirements to jump-start growth.

It wouldn't take much of an error or surprise to turn that tiny profit into a loss.

I'm troubled more, however, by the fact that the surplus is a result of analysis that "assumed that current levels of service will continue.." Last time I checked, no one is happy with current levels of service. They are substandard in many areas: police response times, parks completion and maintenance, street maintenance, public transportation and stormwater management among them. All are underfunded. The cost of getting these levels up to desired standards would turn that $1.6 million surplus into a deficit.

The analysis tells us we have a money-loser in the works unless we're willing to continue suffering substandard levels of service.

There is another big problem with this amendment, even bigger than the net loss. Regardless of whether we ease the requirements of that agreement, how the next 20 percent of our city develops will have a huge impact on the success of our city.

The Springs was designed and built for the automobile, but it's become impossible for our transportation infrastructure to keep pace with continued growth of that type. Today we struggle with increasing traffic congestion and the challenges inherent in desired responses: the expense and availability of land for light rail, an east-west through-way, dedicated bus-lanes, and dedicated bike/pedestrian paths.

We know now that it's smarter to have people live close to where they work and shop. But we often can't require development to address this, because it's legally difficult to change the rules on someone after they've purchased the land. The Banning-Lewis annexation agreement made some unusual demands on the owners of the land. They agreed to the terms because they wanted to be annexed.

Now the ranch has new owners, and they want the council to undo much of that agreement, and in most cases require nothing different at Banning-Lewis than is required on other land being developed in the city. This unnecessarily ties our hands.

We have the agreement in place, and if the developer wants to change it, we should be able to sit down at the table and work out amendments that meet some of the developer's needs, but that also give us the power to ensure the next 50-plus years of development in our city is 21st century development, rather than more of what we did back in the era where the car was king.

It's clear this was not the agenda in those closed-door negotiations. This council would be foolhardy to rubber-stamp the proposal and miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to chart a truly smart path forward for our city.

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Dave Gardner was a candidate for City Council in 2009. He produced the documentary, "GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth."

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