Open-space advocates cast eye on Banning Lewis

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Open-space advocates hope the bankruptcy of the company that owns the 21,000-acre Banning-Lewis ranch may pave the way to the creation of a vast regional park in southeastern Colorado Springs.

The park would link the 522-acre Corral Bluffs open space with the 693-acre Jimmy Camp Creek Park.

Phyllis Cahill, who helped lead the fight to preserve Corral Bluffs, is part of an ad-hoc group formulating plans for the new park, which would cover nearly six square miles.

The proposal would involve the acquisition of an additional 2,480 acres of the Banning-Lewis ranch, effectively merging Jimmy Camp and Corral Bluffs, and permanently preserving a contiguous parcel of undeveloped land totaling 3,695 acres.

“That’s our goal,” said Cahill, “to connect Jimmy Camp and Corral Bluffs.”

The land features sweeping views of Pikes Peak and the Front Range, and is home to more than 70 species of birds, including endangered raptors, and abundant wildlife.

Steve Spelman, the Banning-Lewis Ranch company’s chief financial officer, was receptive to the idea.

“We’re kind of in the early stages (of bankruptcy). But once things are resolved, we’d be open to discussions about anything,” he said.

Political leaders also said they liked the idea.

“I’d certainly be interested in (such an acquisition),” said Colorado Springs City Council member Bernie Herpin. “It’s intriguing, especially since we’re a little lopsided in open space. There isn’t much in the southeast part of town.”

Susan Davies, who heads the Trails and Open Space Coalition, was also supportive.

“There’s been some whispering (about it),” Davies said, “but it’s far too early to be fantasizing about it. If and when there’s a viable proposal, we’ll be leading the charge.”

Significant planning is, in fact, under way.

Open-space advocates are promoting a plan to acquire land between Jimmy Camp Creek Park and Corral Bluffs.

Open-space advocates are promoting a plan to acquire land between Jimmy Camp Creek Park and Corral Bluffs.

Of the 2,480 acres targeted for acquisition, 1,120 are described as “unbuildable” in a map provided by advocates of the plan, leaving 1,360 developable acres.

These advocates anticipate the landowners would receive a mix of cash and open-space credits for their land.

Noting that there are no comparable regional or state parks in the region, Davies suggested that it would be possible to thread together funding from multiple sources.

“TOPS would have to be involved, and GOCO (Great Outdoors Colorado), maybe the Trust for Public lands. And El Paso County, since the park would benefit county residents as well,” she said.

Cahill agreed.

“A parcel that large would have multiple funders,” she said. “I’m not sure what the cost would be, but I guess you’d take the $2,500 an acre the city paid for Corral Bluffs as a guide.”

At that price, the land would go for $6.2 million.

TOPS is funded by a voter-initiated one-tenth of a cent sales tax in Colorado Springs, while GOCO is funded by proceeds from the Colorado lottery. At present, the TOPS fund has approximately $4 million available for open-space purchases.

Under the terms of the 1997 TOPS initiative, a nine-member TOPS working committee advises the City Council on proposed open-space acquisitions. Committee members declined to comment this week on the proposed regional park.

Since GOCO’s creation by statewide initiative in 1992, it has given $690 million to projects “to preserve, protect, and enhance Colorado’s wildlife, parks, rivers, trails, and open spaces.” It has committed $186.3 million for open-space acquisitions alone.

Corral Bluffs, once envisioned as a site for an off-highway vehicle recreational area, was acquired by the city with TOPs funding in 2008.

Jimmy Camp Creek Park was acquired by the city in 1994 as part of a set-aside required by the original Banning-Lewis developer. No development has taken place there since, in part because of plans by Colorado Springs Utilities to build a 700-acre reservoir adjacent to the park as part of the Southern Delivery System. It was anticipated that Jimmy Camp, the reservoir and surrounding Utilities-owned land would become a new 2,000-acre regional park.

But after announcing plans for the reservoir in 2002, CSU formally abandoned the idea in 2008 in favor of a site at Williams Creek.

CSU had already purchased several hundred acres for the proposed reservoir from private landholders. Neither Jimmy Camp nor Corral Bluffs are developed, and no public access is available to either, except for occasional guided hikes.