Reminiscent of the U.S. Olympic Committee deal, the city is conducting secret meetings with Ultra Petroleum about how Banning Lewis Ranch will be developed or not developed, as the case may be.

Under threats from Ultra, city officials aren't talking.


Council President Scott Hente acknowledged that he chaired a meeting Monday, presumably among city and Ultra officials, but that's all he'll say. Period.

"It's all very confidential, because it's still in the court system," Hente says.

Ultra has put in the winning bid of $26.25 million to buy 18,000 acres of the ranch, which was annexed in 1988 but not developed, and last fall went into bankruptcy. A northern portion has somewhere between 200 and 400 houses on it, but that's not the land Ultra wants to buy. It wants the southern portion, and it has no interest in building homes.

Rather, it wants to drill for oil and gas.

Ultra has asked the bankruptcy court to free it from the city's annexation agreement, which requires the owner to provide land for roads, fire and police stations, parks, power substations and the like. The entire ranch, about 23,000 acres, was master planned years ago. That means the plan dictates where homes will be built, where commercial areas will be sited, even some road names.

The city doesn't want Ultra to get a walk from the agreement and has been arguing against that.

The Gazette reported on the meeting earlier this week.

We asked Hente today if the secrecy surrounding the discussion means that any deal struck would happen without the public being engaged in any way, shape or form, to which he said, "I don't know the answer to that question."

"There are agencies and things involved that go way beyond the city," Hente said. But he then asserted, "The city has lots of authority on land use matters."

Pressed for why the city, then, is so willing to shut out the public, he said, "Any disclosure of any parts of the discussion would be subject to sanction by the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission]."

What could they do to the city or a councilman?

"I don't want to find out," he said.

So the threat of SEC action carries more weight than the public being included in decisions? Even if those decisions could change the course of the city's growth for generations, and impact how the Southern Delivery System will be developed, considering the Banning Lewis Ranch housing development was a prime reason for the $880 million pipeline project?

Hente: "The threat of Scott facing a civil or criminal sanction is more important than anything."

So the public is in the dark about everything: what's being discussed, how the decision will be made, by whom, what factors are being taken into consideration, even when a decision is expected on all of the above unknowns. Yadda yadda yadda.

The secret world of city hall continues.


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