No matter the group of people, no matter the setting, one local issue has been coming up lately in practically every public encounter for me.
If you quickly guessed the future of Memorial Health System, you'd be mistaken. And it's not Doug Lamborn and his ill-advised "tar baby" comment, though our letter-writers still won't let that one go.
What's really coming up most often? Hard to believe, but it's Banning Lewis Ranch. Specifically, Texas company Ultra Petroleum's interest in drilling for oil and natural gas on nearly 18,000 undeveloped acres, almost a quarter-century after it was annexed to the city of Colorado Springs amid plans that were almost too gargantuan to believe.
Banning Lewis wasn't conceived as the next Briargate, Rockrimmon or Broadmoor Bluffs. More like our version of Aurora, Highlands Ranch or, what the heck, Fort Collins.
Exaggeration? Not really. For those who never knew, these were the projected numbers for Banning Lewis: 180,000 people or more, living in 75,000 or so homes, condos and apartments, served by nearly 80 million square feet of businesses and other commercial entities. (By comparison, Fort Collins had 144,000 residents as of 2010, with Highlands Ranch around 97,000.)
Alas, the boom subsided for this region, though the timing of Banning Lewis' demise was drawn out long enough that Colorado Springs forged ahead with its Southern Delivery System to bring more water from the Arkansas River. The talking points changed late in the game, but Banning Lewis stood alone for years as the primary reason for SDS. (Now it's all about "redundancy" and trying to have twice as much water as we might need for the next 40 or 50 years.)
The subplot of SDS has been part of my recent interactions around the city, but not the main part.
People are wondering about Ultra Petroleum and what the impact of drilling would be on all of us. If you haven't heard much about Ultra, that's about to change. Through the years ahead, Ultra might become as recognizable for Colorado Springs and El Paso County as The Broadmoor, Focus on the Family and the U.S. Olympic Committee. No kidding.
That's because Ultra apparently has Texas-sized hopes for those 18,000 acres. Yes, that means drilling lots of wells, with jobs by the hundreds (who knows, thousands?) to spur the local economy. Already, local attorneys tell me privately, Ultra is making generous offers to landowners around Banning Lewis and eastern El Paso County for mineral rights under their properties.
Some might consider it just a gamble. From all indications, though, Ultra believes there's a major bonanza deep under that mostly barren land.
At what price? The concern lies in what Ultra might have to do in order to remove that natural gas and/or oil. It might mean fracking, another term becoming well-known to locals, with the drillers injecting huge amounts of water, along with possibly nasty chemicals, deep underground to force out the gas and oil. We've heard stories across the country of fracking gone bad, invading and harming water supplies, leading to serious effects on real people, disrupting their lives.
Now we're likely on the verge of seeing battles on several fronts, hopefully in full view of the public. One, Ultra trying to change Banning Lewis' zoning away from residential. Two, Ultra possibly seeking to de-annex its land from the city (if unsatisfied after its dealings with local officials), whether by agreement or legal action. Three, deciding how tough the fracking standards will be, especially in terms of monitoring and accountability. The state has regulations about fracking, but the city and/or county would have the option to add tougher standards. And four, the SDS opponents perhaps mounting one last challenge to stop the pipeline from further development. (It might be too late, but you never know.)
Put all that together, and as I told one group last week, the uncertain saga of Banning Lewis Ranch and Ultra Petroleum could become this region's No. 1 news story for the next three to five years, even beyond.
Of course, many will insist that fracking is safe, so drill, baby, drill. But will it happen? Or perhaps more appropriately, when? And will it really help bring better times to Colorado Springs, or not?
People are watching. Lots of people, paying closer attention now. As they should.