The most important development for the future of Colorado Springs isn’t apparent just by going to the city’s website.
The first thing you see is a link to PlanCOS, an invitation to get involved in the city’s planning process for its updated comprehensive plan — the first one in 15 years.
But that plan isn’t what will truly shape the city in the next decade. Sometime early next year, we can expect a development that may influence our future far more than PlanCOS. And that decision will be made long before the comprehensive plan is approved and put into action.
What’s the development? Banning-Lewis Ranch.
For months, Mayor John Suthers and the city administration have been engaged in detailed, substantive negotiations with Nor’wood Development Group about the property’s future.
The more than 20,000-acre ranch originally was annexed to the city in 1989. But the land has been left mostly untouched in the years since then.
Local developers and builders blame onerous provisions of the annexation agreement for the delay — combined with the multiple missteps and misfortunes of subsequent property owners.
But now the property has owners with deep pockets and deeper roots in Colorado Springs.
In June 2014, Nor’wood bought surface rights to the 18,000-acre undeveloped portion of the ranch from Ultra Petroleum, which had acquired it out of bankruptcy in 2011 as an oil-and-gas exploration play and still holds mineral rights to the land.
Nor’wood has cautiously explored its alternatives.
The pace quickened in 2016, driven by a reviving local economy and a suddenly functional city government. The negotiations are reportedly near completion, and the Suthers administration may soon unveil an extensively revised annexation agreement. The agreement will first be presented to the planning commission and then forwarded to city council.
What will it contain?
My guess is that it will be vastly improved over its predecessor. It’ll protect Corral Bluffs (a regional park and open space), expand parks and trails, be eminently bicycle friendly and may even retain a thousand acres or so as a working cattle ranch. It will be a flexible, realistic blueprint for a new kind of suburb — one that will attract Millennials and empty-nesters, as well as traditional suburbanites.
Nor’wood is the real estate development arm of the Jenkins family, whose enduring links to Colorado Springs guarantee that development will actually take place — unlike promises by others in the past.
When completed, the ranch will likely have more than 100,000 residents, tens of millions of square feet of commercial, office and industrial properties, hundreds of miles of roads and everything else that a small city requires.
The process may take decades, but it will happen. When it does, Colorado Springs will be an entirely different city.
And that new city will define our future.
Decisions embedded in the new agreement will have to be carefully dissected by city councilors. They need to understand how Nor’wood plans to fund capital improvements, as well as how it will phase in the development.
If it plans to create special improvement districts to help fund infrastructure, council needs to look carefully at cumulative impacts.
Will the districts be so structured that costs and risks are entirely shifted to future property owners? Will BLR impose costs on the city that will not be recouped in taxes and fees?
This is where the politics can get intricate, opaque and difficult to parse. If Mayor Suthers waits until after the April municipal elections to present the plan, it might be because he’d like to work with a different council. Mavericks such as Helen Collins and Don Knight are sure to be skeptical of any deal, one reason that both are likely to face well-funded, business-friendly opponents.
Nor’wood will do what any business in its position would do — try to minimize risk and magnify gains. It has millions on the line. Unless properly structured, the BLR development could claim yet another victim — even one as powerful and sophisticated as Nor’wood. Council’s job is straightforward, but far from easy: Understand the risks and rewards to both the city and the developer, and act accordingly.