In baseball, three strikes and you’re out. In football, four downs and you give up the ball. As an elected official, you never know how many chances you’ll have to make a difference during your term in office.
The remaining undeveloped 18,000 acres of Banning Lewis Ranch once again are officially on the market, presenting Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach with the opportunity of a lifetime.
The ranch on the city’s eastern border has been in play since 1965, when the then-owners defaulted on a loan used to acquire the property from Raymond “Pink” Lewis in 1963.
A division of Mobil Oil bought it in 1981 for $22.5 million, and flipped it for $92.5 million five years later to Arizona developer Frank Aries.
Funded by a credit line from a sketchy Arizona savings and loan, Aries master-planned the entire 20,000-plus acres, and in 1988 he persuaded City Council to annex the property.
In 1989 the wildly leveraged land deal fell apart. Overextended S&Ls throughout the nation closed their doors, and the free money that had supported speculative ventures throughout the Southwest vanished. The Resolution Trust foreclosed on the ranch, and eventually sold it for $18.5 million to an investment group said to be fronting for Saudi billionaires.
In 2001 a California company, Capital Pacific Holdings, bought it from the Saudis for $55 million. The new owners shilly-shallied around for years, beginning serious development only in 2007 — nice timing! The Great Recession poleaxed Capital Pacific, and the ranch again fell into foreclosure in 2010.
Development interests snapped up a couple of thousand acres, while the remaining 18,000 acres were sold for $20 million to Houston-based Ultra Petroleum. Colorado Springs’ dreams of another Aurora arising on its eastern border were replaced by dreams of oil and gas riches … which promptly vanished into the summer mists.
Now Ultra wants to sell. According to Ultra Vice President Exploration Doug Selvius, “We will entertain offers that are submitted to us — preferably for the entire ranch. To warrant consideration, such offers will need to afford us a decent profit on our $20 million investment.”
Selvius adds that Ultra has not engaged a broker for such a deal and doesn’t plan to do so, but he says, “We have received a lot of interest and inquiries about our selling the ranch.”
So what happens next?
By annexing Banning Lewis 25 years ago, the city essentially obligated itself to provide water to the entire development. That seemed like a fine idea in 1988, but it sure isn’t today.
Once the Southern Delivery System is completed, bringing water here from the Arkansas River, that’s it.
Climate change has sharply reduced mountain snowpack, and drought has become the new normal throughout the Mountain West.
Colorado Springs will never again be able to develop another water project.
Developing Banning Lewis may mean permanent curbs on landscape irrigation, even after SDS is on stream. It will doom much of the city’s urban forest, which cannot survive without supplemental water.
In a decade or two we would say goodbye to the stately maples on the North End, to the oak trees that shade the El Paso Club downtown, and to the tens of thousands of non-native trees that homeowners have nurtured for generations.
This is where Mayor Bach and City Council come in.
They need to create a plan to buy and preserve Banning Lewis Ranch. Let it remain a cattle ranch, with a few thousand acres dedicated as publicly accessible open space.
Do it, and they’ll realize multiple interlocking goals — protecting the city’s water supply, encouraging infill development, providing a magnificent new recreation area.
As one longtime developer points out, it’ll also eliminate the need to spend hundreds of millions on transportation infrastructure to serve the area.
This is the kind of thing real cities do — bold, ambitious and oriented to the long future.
Bach can do it. He’s not afraid of risk. In the end, it’s just another real estate deal — not unlike the hundreds of such deals he brokered during a long, successful career in the private sector.
So go for it, Mayor Bach!
The naysayers will carp and complain, but future residents will thank you just as we thank the visionaries of the past. William Palmer, Charles Perkins, Spec Penrose, W.S. Stratton, Joe Reich — good company to be in.