(Part Two of a Three-Part Series)
In the year and a half I’ve written for The Catalyst, I’ve opined about a number of contentious city issues—stormwater fees, the early closure of Martin Drake Power Plant, and needle exchange—but none as consequential as that of Banning Lewis Ranch and the proposed changes to the annexation agreement that governs it. The final decision will have an enormous impact on the Colorado Springs future for decades to come. So with that, I’d like to offer a disclaimer: the issue of BLR deserves far more than the 800 words I’m about to provide. It’s as complex as it is important, and if you have the time, I suggest you conduct your own investigation. But we’re all busy, so here’s my highly condensed take:
BLR is a 24,000 acre plot of land in the northeastern corner of the city. To put that in perspective, 24,000 acres is 38 square miles, the equivalent of 20 percent of the land area of Colorado Springs, or roughly the size of the city of Fort Collins, Colo., depending on how you want to look at it.
The city annexed the land in 1988, drawing up an agreement in the process to ensure that any development on the land would pay for itself. Since then, developers have built 1,577 homes on the land, far fewer than originally anticipated. Proponents of a new annexation agreement attribute this sluggish growth to the onerous requirements that the current agreement places on developers to ensure costs don’t fall to the taxpayers—which is why the city is now considering changing the agreement to lift many of these requirements and make development there much less expensive.
If city officials approve the amended agreement, they will be making a serious mistake. While the tax revenue and economic growth the development is projected to create would be great in a vacuum, a comprehensive look reveals that the new agreement would cost taxpayers money and make the city’s sprawl, parks, and public transportation problems much worse.
The argument in favor of the new annexation agreement is two-fold. First, a study by TischlerBise, an economic forecasting firm based out of Bethesda, MD., found that over the next 30 years the city will receive $49 million more in revenue from BLR than it will spend helping it grow. Second, because of the growth-killing requirements in the current annexation agreement, development has just “leapfrogged” Colorado Springs into unincorporated townships outside the city limit, contributing to the city’s infrastructure expenses but not its government coffers.
But in coming up with the $49 million figure, TischlerBise left out some important details. First, while developers will have to pay for all road construction interior to BLR, any improvements to the roads that surround it will fall to the taxpayers. Any strain new residents put on other Colorado Springs roads will also be paid for by taxpayers—the new agreement scraps a $0.39 per acre fee for road improvements included in the old one. And none of this takes into account the less easily measured costs the new development will impose—things like air pollution, traffic deaths, and affordable housing. With this many unaccounted for variables, a slim projected profit margin of $49 million over 30 years doesn’t really mean much.
The new annexation agreement also changes the rules on parks and open space within the ranch. Under the new deal, developers will be required to either set aside land for parks or pay a fee, but not both. If they decide to set aside land, the cost of building and maintaining parks will fall to the city. If they choose to pay the fee, residents of the ranch will likely use the already overcrowded parks on the west side of the city. The fees are between $1,264 and $1,781 per housing unit. It’s unclear whether that would cover the extra maintenance costs new park users would impose—it seems to me like it probably would. But this also might be beside the point. The Manitou Incline, the Barr Trail, North Cheyenne Canyon, and Bear Creek Park are already so crowded, I don’t know how much more traffic they can take.
The “leapfrogging” argument in favor of the new agreement actually makes a lot of sense in theory. The people who live outside the city limit use Colorado Springs roads and parks but don’t pay any municipal taxes. But in this case, it’s a question of scale. The population of Falcon, the primary unincorporated township near BLR, was just shy of 11,000 in 2009. While it has grown since then, it still pales in comparison to BLR—the ranch’s master plan creates the opportunity for 175,000 new residents, and TischlerBise predicts that 62,000 will move in over the next 30 years. If leapfrogging is the problem the city is trying to solve, the new BLR agreement is overkill.
Developing BLR in the way the city has proposed would make the city’s sprawl and public transportation problems a lot worse. Whereas the old agreement required the construction of a Park-n-Ride bus lot, the new one makes no mention of public transportation. Since Colorado Springs already suffers from a car-centric transportation scheme, this is certainly a step in the wrong direction. There are a number of other contentious issues surrounding BLR, with things like police stations, waste and drinking water, electrical utilities, and more. I don’t have the space to go into all of them.
But the most important thing to understand is that Colorado Springs already has a lot of problems, and this new development plan will make many of them worse. The city needs to focus on managing its increasing density, parkland, public transportation, and affordable housing, all of which require a holistic and long-term approach to economic development, which is missing from the conversations over Banning Lewis Ranch.