Since 1997, residents of Springs Ranch have enjoyed living within sight of a golf course that provides soothing green space and allows their neighborhoods to breathe.

Homes there are desirable, said Lou Morales, who has lived in Springs Ranch for 22 years and now owns a home that overlooks the golf course’s 13th hole.

“Realtor.com voted our ZIP code the No. 2 hottest in America in 2018,” Morales said. “Open space is a big attraction.”

Some of the neighborhoods around the golf course make reference to it in their names: Fairways at Springs Ranch and Golf Course North, for example.

But homeowners learned earlier this year that Classic Homes had contracted with Tom Tauche, owner of Springs Ranch Golf Club, to buy the golf course. Classic would close the golf course, apply for rezoning and build homes, townhomes and apartments for 1,500 additional residents.

In response, nine Springs Ranch homeowners associations formed a coalition called Save Springs Ranch Green Space and Golf Course. They are concerned about their views, home values and the impact of more development on wildlife and marshland.

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But Morales said the real issue is what the residents view as a broken promise by the city that goes back to the original master plan by developer BRE Springs Ranch.

BROKEN PROMISE?

In an April 24, 2019 letter to Mayor John Suthers, the residents contended that rezoning the golf course from A-Agricultural to R-Residential would be “a breach of the original agreement between the City and Springs Ranch which will negatively affect the public health, safety, welfare and aesthetics of the existing neighborhood and Colorado Springs as a whole.”

In every proposed development, the city code requires the dedication of land or payment of fees in lieu of land, in a total amount based on the number of residents.

According to the letter, Colorado Springs City Council approved a resolution Oct. 12, 1999, granting parkland credit of 66.5 acres for the then-210-acre golf course. The credit was intended to compensate for a deficit of 79.9-111.7 acres of parks within the neighborhood, provided that the course would remain open to the public.

The Springs Ranch letter said the city’s agreement with the golf course “has been steadily and quietly negotiated away … to allow residential/commercial development along Tutt [Boulevard]” through amendments in 2011, 2015 and 2018.

The most recent amendment, signed by Tauche and Suthers on Nov. 28, 2018, states that “the Park Credit Agreement permits the termination of the use of the Property as a golf course in the future if the City is reimbursed for the park credits previously obtained” and that “Tauche intends to close the golf course … and to make the Property available for development, and agrees to reimburse the City for the park credits previously obtained … when the golf course is closed to the general public.”

The residents think the amendments “have taken away the open space which the Springs Ranch master plan requires,” Morales said. “Our goal is to provide [the city] with information so we can preserve some of that open space and not let a developer just go in and cover the land full of homes and we never have a say in it.

“We’re not against development; what we are against is unbridled development. Open space is a huge desire, and based on the city code, it’s our right to have it.”

Morales said many residents believe that a decision in favor of rezoning would set a precedent and thus could have a citywide impact.

“What’s going to happen to other neighborhoods when somebody wants to go in there and build a shopping center or change their park into whatever they want? … A lot of people are very dispirited because the city seems to roll with the developers.”

CLASSIC’S PLAN

The residents already have had a say and will continue to do so, Classic Homes CEO Doug Stimple said.

“We’ve held four townhall meetings, all well in advance of when we’re going to make an actual submittal to the city,” Stimple said.

More public input will be required as the rezoning request, which Classic plans to submit in August, goes through the city planning process.

“We’ve been exploring infill development opportunities in Colorado Springs,” Stimple said. “It makes a lot of sense for cities to explore those. [The city’s comprehensive plan] PlanCOS says infill development should be embraced and encouraged. One of the things you always look for when you’re doing that is undervalued, underutilized or frankly failing properties. Springs Ranch Golf Course meets that criteria.”

Tauche did not respond to a request for an interview with the Business Journal, but Stimple said the underutilized golf course needs millions of dollars’ worth of deferred maintenance, an investment that no one has been willing to make.

“Mr. Tauche has recognized that, and didn’t know what to do about it until we approached him and said we have an idea,” Stimple said. “In our opinion, it is inevitable that the golf course is going to close; the question becomes what should happen with it. We think we have put forth a very thoughtful, responsible, creative development plan.”

The plan proposes 500-600 homes in two projects spanning North Carefree Circle that will be a mix of traditional single-family homes, townhomes and apartments, as well as “significant” dedication of land for more than 17 acres of formal and informal parks, trail and open-space corridors, and a community center, “all incorporated around a walkable, bikeable community” that “ties all of this in an appropriate manner into the retail, entertainment and restaurant opportunities that exist at First & Main,” Stimple said.

A conceptual map of the projects is posted on Classic’s website.

Stimple noted that Tauche’s agreement with the city said if the golf course closed, the fees in lieu of parkland would be paid at the current rate — more than $4 million, or four times the 1999 rate.

“If our plan is successful, the city will be better off than they would have been 30 years ago,” Stimple said. “The golf course is no longer going to be there … but right now there isn’t one of those residents that has the right to be there without paying a greens fee. Under our plan, they’re going to have access to trails and parks and other community amenities that we’re going to open up. Some of them may feel that’s a good trade; some may not.”

PLANNING PERSPECTIVE

Colorado Springs Planning and Development Director Peter Wysocki said the Springs Ranch master plan is designated an implemented master plan, meaning that at least 85 percent of the land has been developed.

“We sometimes do see changes in previously approved master plans where the community is developing over a number of years and conditions change,” Wysocki said. “Developers then seek changes to their master plans, either to relocate some residential density or commercial sites, or reconfigure previously master-planned park areas. It is not uncommon throughout the implementation of a private master plan, that developers seek adjustments. They are to some degree an amendable document, provided they go through the proper reviews.”

When Classic files for a zoning change, “they likely will file as a planned unit development” in order to do a mix of housing densities, he said.

“They need to submit traffic studies, drainage reports, a development plan, meaning how will the property be developed, the layouts of streets and lots, and all that is filed with the city’s planning office,” Wysocki said.

“We would process it like any other application, so disseminate for comments to various city departments and external agencies,” he said. “We will likely hold a neighborhood meeting, even though Classic had their own neighborhood meetings. We would then review it and write a recommendation to the city planning commission.”

The commission would conduct a public hearing and forward a recommendation to city council. Council would hold public hearings again before voting on the zone change.

As part of that process, “we would have to resolve the issue of the parkland dedication ordinance credit they received and if there has to be repayment of the credits or dedication of appropriate land for parks that is warranted by the development,” Wysocki said. “If the project is approved, the city needs to negotiate previously issued credits toward the parks dedication ordinance, and the developer will be required to provide the land for parks or pay the fee.”

As with other privately owned property, “the property owner is allowed to seek land use entitlements, meaning they can apply to the city to change the zoning for the property to be developed. Often these sorts of transactions are contingent on entitlements being issued.”

Asked whether the process favors developers, Wysocki said, “We are a professional staff. We follow procedures set forth in city zoning and subdivision ordinance, which basically regulates development. If a project meets those standards, if an applicant comes in with a project that offsets any significant impacts — provides water, sewer, all the infrastructure, meets city zoning — we are bound by code to recommend approvals to the planning commission and city council. It’s based on very objective criteria that are prescribed in the city code.”

WORKING THINGS OUT

Morales said he has had several “very civil” discussions with Stimple.

“I think he’s interested, as any businessman, he wants to make it as easy for himself — and as cost-effective — as possible,” Morales said.

He acknowledges that Classic has already made some changes to its plans as a result of input from the townhall meetings, including lowering some home heights, reducing density and increasing sight lines between buildings.

“What we’re trying to do is cooperate,” Morales said.

But the coalition is prepared to make their case during the planning process and has not ruled out a legal fight, although Morales said he would prefer to work things out.

“We’re kind of on a tightrope, trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We just don’t want to be promised something again and have it taken away.”