Imagine 12,000 acres of open space, trails and parks on the city's east side — nearly 10 times the size of Garden of the Gods park.
That's the vision shared by conservationists for Banning Lewis Ranch, a roughly 18,000-acre undeveloped area beyond Powers Boulevard. Last week, Nor'wood Development Group, the region's largest developer, announced it had placed the land under contract and noted a commitment to working with preservation interests.
Twelve thousand acres might sound far-fetched, but agency representatives at the table with Nor'wood owner Chris Jenkins, who has a reputation as an outdoorsman and community leader, say it could happen.
"This informal group was afraid that an out-of-state group would swoop in and speculate on the property, which has been done before, and we would be stuck with another bankruptcy condition," says Justin Spring, senior project manager with the national Trust for Public Land.
For decades, the one-time cattle ranch has been in the hands of absentee owners from Saudi Arabia, California and, most recently, Canada. That's home to Ultra Petroleum, which bought the property in 2011 for $20 million out of a bankruptcy, then looked into selling once test drilling proved disappointing.
Not only is Nor'wood locally owned, but it has the financial heft to make things happen. It developed First and Main on Powers Boulevard and Wolf Ranch to the north. It also owns significant land in the downtown area where components of the City for Champions tourism venture are planned. The company's news release about the contract promises that Banning Lewis development will focus on "thoughtful, careful and long-term stewardship."
For years, open-space advocates have salivated over roughly 3,000 acres between the 600-acre Corral Bluffs Open Space, on the ranch's east side, and city-owned 693-acre Jimmy Camp Creek Park, which is west of there, still within the ranch.
The parcel would advance links to Sand Creek and Rock Island trails to accommodate outdoor use ranging from horseback riding to cycling, and preserve archaeological and paleontological assets that date from the emergence of mammals, according to an application for funding submitted to the city's Trails, Open Space and Parks program. Bill Koerner with the Trails and Open Space Coalition calls it "a very beautiful area, if you like the high desert terrain."
Those ambitions now seem puny compared to the idea of setting aside a whopping 12,000 acres for public use. And if it's hard to believe a developer would cede that much territory, Spring is optimistic. Nor'wood seems to appreciate that developing the ranch under the original master plan "could bankrupt the city," Spring says, by requiring police and fire protection, roads and parks for tens of thousands of homes, businesses and other development.
"If you could include a very significant conservation component, that would completely change the calculus and vision for how that property is developed," he says. "Contrary to conventional wisdom, this is why conservation and development can be a win-win. Each of those interests need each other financially and to create a community asset that's going to be sustainable."
Spring adds, "It's not unusual for developers to work with conservation interests, because, of course, everyone would love to have a house next to open space and a park."
Responding to questions via email, Jenkins says his company wants to make the ranch "a great success for our city and region." Asked about setting aside 12,000 acres for public use, he writes that it's premature to talk about the size of a set-aside, but that Nor'wood is committed to working with conservation groups and "the best local and national professional planning firms" to develop a plan that embraces stewardship and cost-effective city services, among other things.
Changing the rules
Whether Nor'wood follows through with the purchase likely hinges on whether the 1988 annexation agreement and master plan are amended. Some development has occurred on the north side by Oakwood Homes, which bought 2,600 acres earlier and, as the Gazette reports, plans houses for 35,000 residents over the next two decades.
But the vast majority of the Banning Lewis Ranch remains undeveloped, because developers haven't been able to afford it. The annexation agreement mandates most of the public infrastructure to be funded by developers, and it's inflexible. For example, not only must the developer build and equip five fire stations, but the agreement specifies which parcels the stations will occupy.
Also, the developer "at its sole expense" must prepare a study of the Jimmy Camp Creek Drainage Basin and a restudy of the Sand Creek basin, and be responsible for flood control or set up a drainage district to handle it. That might conflict with a regional stormwater plan reliant on a voter-approved fee.
The annexation agreement even requires the developer to make cash payments to the city, should revenues from the development fall short of money required to provide services. Amendments to the annexation agreement and master plan will fall to City Council for approval.