Peterson expansion closer to reality

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After years of negotiations, Peterson Air Force Base might soon finally get the room it needs to expand.

The base, which sits adjacent to Colorado Springs Regional Airport, wants roughly 800 more acres to move into new missions, which would boost its footprint by about one-third.

It is negotiating on a 268-acre, city-owned parcel at the end of one of the airport’s runways, as well as other parcels in the area.

The idea of an expansion has been kicked around since 2007, when the Air Force gave Peterson the green light to enter talks with property owners.

It’s a big deal, and not just for Peterson. More new missions mean more private defense contractors — and that means more jobs in Colorado Springs.

No one is talking about specifics yet, but John Cassiani, vice president of project operations at Banning Lewis Ranch, said “several hundred” acres of the development are being considered by the Air Force.

“We’re still in the very early stages of discussion,” Cassiani said. “We’re still discussing how much land, how the land will be transferred, how it will be used by the Air Force.”

Agreement, he said, is likely sometime next year.

Banning Lewis Ranch was bought by Hadi Makarechian, owner of Capital Pacific Holdings, for $52 million in 2001. He invested an additional $60 million preparing the land for development. The land is now assessed at about $23 million. Makarechian planned a sprawling 72,000-home development on the 21,400-acre property, but the recession put those plans largely on hold. So far, only about 200 homes and a charter school have been built at Banning Lewis Ranch.

Airport Aviation Director Mark Earle, who is helping coordinate the negotiations, said several other private landowners have been approached.

He said there would be no official announcements until a deal was complete.

“We don’t want to talk about it too early — we’re still in negotiations. This is a delicate time,” he said.

The agreement between the city and Peterson could be finalized sooner, possibly by year’s end, he said.

Colorado Springs already leases land to Peterson — for $1 a year — and the base uses runways at the airport for its military missions.

But Peterson is out of room for new missions, and has been for years. It is home to the Air Force Space Command, the U.S. Northern Command and the Army Space Missile Defense Command. Also, NORAD moved most of its missions to the base from Cheyenne Mountain Air Base last year.

The base now occupies 1,278 acres and employs 46,000 people, including 21,000 active-duty military personnel, 13,000 civilian contractors and 1,200 reservists.

Earle stressed that the Air Force was not considering using eminent domain laws to seize privately held land.

It’s a sensitive point because of the statewide uproar that erupted in response to Fort Carson’s proposed expansion plans.

Nearly every Colorado politician now running for re-election — from the governor to various state lawmakers — is opposed to the expansion, which the Army says it needs to improve training for soldiers bound for the war in Afghanistan.

The Army wanted to expand its footprint at the Pinon Canyon Maneuver site, about 150 miles from Fort Carson. The plan included buying ranches from families who have lived there for decades. Both Congress and the state legislature blocked the military’s expansion, and the post has backed away from its intended expansion for now.

Other Air Force expansion plans have met with similar objections elsewhere in the West.

Ellsworth Air Force Base doesn’t want more land; it just wants more air space. The base hopes to expand the size of its Powder River Training Complex from 9,500 square miles to more than 40,000 square miles, sending more than 3,000 sorties and training flights over ranch land in Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota.

A similar expansion plan at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico would increase the number of flights over Colorado including Colorado Springs.