Banning Lewis Ranch negotiations explained


Today, City Council took up negotiations to the Banning Lewis Ranch annexation agreement. Not what exactly is being negotiated, but just who is negotiating and why.

City Attorney Wynetta Massey gave an overview of the history of the BLR, annexed in 1988 with a "hard zoning" master plan in place.

Problem is, there are a couple dozen landowners out there (BLR covers the eastern quarter or so of the city), and the infrastructure requirements imposed on developers have sterilized development over the years. It's just too darned expensive to develop it, or even sell it to someone who wants to develop it.

The biggest chunk of land is owned by Nor'wood Development Group, the biggest developer in the region, which acquired it in 2014.

Massey explained that back in 2007, in response to a court case, the city worked with the landowners to come up with a shared agreement of how much would be charged for various infrastructure, including police and fire stations, parks, streets, overpasses and the like. This agreement replaced the annexation agreements "joint and several" requirements for infrastructure.

Massey also explained that the mayor, not City Council, enforces such agreements to make sure all terms and conditions are "faithfully kept and performed." So, it's now the mayor's office which is involved in negotiating new terms. A deal would end an appeal of an earlier federal bankruptcy court ruling that concluded the annexation agreement transfers to the new owners, Nor'wood.

The stay of the appeal ends on Feb. 15, which is why this is coming up now.

Murray: Wants more transparency. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Murray: Wants more transparency.
Although Councilor Bill Murray said he'd like to have the negotiations take place in public, he was shut down.

"We have a right to ask you what you intend to do on Feb. 15," he said, "if they [Nor'wood] asks for an extension [of the stay]. Why not in open session?"

Massey refused, saying talks in open public session would compromise the city strategy.

However, she agreed, presumably with the blessing of Mayor John Suthers, since his Chief of Staff Jeff Greene approved it, welcomed participation in negotiations by Councilors Tom Strand and Andy Pico.

At the end of the day, Massey noted, Council must approve the amended annexation agreement. Councilor Don Knight expressed concern the Council is being put in the position of being a rubber stamp, saying, "What freedoms do we have when it comes to Council to make changes to it, or do we just vote it up or down?"

"I don’t think you’re just a rubber stamp," Massey said. "You’re acting in the best interest of the city whether the terms and conditions presented are appropriate."

Knight then expressed relief that Council is working with Suthers rather than former Mayor Steve Bach, who seemed to create a lot of acrimony between his office and Council.

Moreover, Greene noted that the BLR negotiations aren't an aberration. "What’s occurring today is no different than any other subdivision process that occurs," he said.

Also, Massey noted that while the spirit of the original annexation agreement is being upheld in the negotiations, things change over time. For example, she said, if the city's power generation capability changed, it might not need all the electric substation sites contained in the original agreement. "If we don't need them," she said, "why should [developers] pay for them?"

Pico said the agreement, once presented to Council, will be dealt with in open session. "This is a 30-year-old agreement," he said. "We ought to take a look at it. There's no skullduggery going on."

"Very well said," said Council President Merv Bennett.

"I also want to emphasize," Greene added, "as we go through any type of land use process, we will follow all the requirements outlined in the code. We will ensure the transparency of this process. No determinations will be made until Council has been fully prepared, public meetings and stakeholders discussions are held."

Council then went into closed session to discuss acquisition of property and a First Amendment issue, the latter related to the sit-lie ordinance on tap for a Council vote tomorrow.

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