Some tough options remain for Banning Lewis Ranch

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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.

5 Responses to Some tough options remain for Banning Lewis Ranch

  1. The funding for regional storm and flood water control infrastructure will be immense – the highest-cost single project in the history of the region – involving some form of regional municipal bonding entity to secure the package. Gaining support from as wide a constituency as possible will be a paramount consideration. John’s idea has merit. Tie a small amount into the massive bond to secure the Banning-Lewis Ranch might have broad appeal to conservationists, anti-development groups, parks and open space folks, and outdoor enthusiasts. Forty million for this land be a wise investment.

    Bach. You up to some reconsideration to the concept of “Regionalism”? It has worked wonders for those cities our civic groups and local government officials trip out to on the ‘fact-finding’ junkets to Omaha – Austin – Portland – Oklahoma City.

    Richard D Wehner
    June 17, 2013 at 12:27 pm

  2. That is exactly what I’ve been saying since I heard the news of the sale. This is such an awesome opportunity.

    Ben Miller
    June 17, 2013 at 12:42 pm

  3. the interesting part of the Savings and Loan piece is the ties to the same old payers: The Bush kingdom. The Arizona crew had Mr. McCain which brought in Niel Bush and Colorado Savings ( they were at Academy and Palmer Park…now mostly vacant mall.) Some guy took the fall for the Bush kingdom. Charles Keating, I believe was his name. He did prison time. We had a bond that Frank Aries defaulted on and the Special Taxing district sent a bill to 1200 homeowners in Stetson Hills to the tune of millions.
    But…Reagan bailed out the Bush Kingdom by having the Resolution Trust Corp take all the properties off the books of the S&l’s. I sold an 8000 square foot house on 5 acres of treed land for $180,000. It was a bargain.
    And then the Kingdom was happy, the memories of foreclosures and failures long gone,George W was elected, McCain was unscathed, and Walker Stapleton is hardly associated with the crime.

    carolyn cathey
    June 17, 2013 at 1:02 pm

  4. This is exactly what should be done. Outdoor recreation trails, absolutly, how about a nice lake, CSU needs more water storage locations, and residents would love another rampart to play in.
    Heck, you could get a little crazy and forget the cattle ranch, turn some of it into a safari and let the CMZoo’s giraffes and zebras run free again.

    Doug B
    June 18, 2013 at 3:10 pm

  5. As long as Stetson Hills Blvd is completed through to Garrett Rd, and Dublin compled to Falcon Highway along with North Carefree and Barnes Rd completed though to highway 24, I am happy with whatever happens to the BLR. We need roads to connect other than Constitution Blvd and Woodmen Rd. We need east west connectivity alot more than what we have now. At least build the roads through the BLR!!!

    Brian
    June 20, 2013 at 8:32 am