On a unanimous 7-0 vote last week, the City Council approved the Woodmen Heights annexation in the northeast part of the city. The 820-acre development at Woodmen and Black Forest roads will eventually be home to an estimated 5,000 residents and scads of commercial space.
Supporters hail the annexation as a boon that will bring millions in tax revenues.
"I think it's in the best interest of the city," Mayor Lionel Rivera said.
But critics -- including people living nearby as well as slow-growth activists -- argue that in addition to the lack of formal annexation paperwork, development costs will likely be passed on to Colorado Springs Utilities ratepayers. The project, they say, represents the kind of sprawl that runs counter to the city's guiding growth principles.
"How do you approve something nobody has read?" asked Walter Lawson, an outspoken Council critic. "In some cities this would be a scandal."
A special need
The project's applicant is local land development consulting group LDC Inc. Company representatives did not return calls seeking comment but, according to the proposal that went before the City Council, when built, Woodmen Heights is expected to include 1.2 million feet of commercial/retail space, 1.5 million feet of office space, approximately 1,600 single-family homes, 600 town homes and a large church campus.
Though general plans were submitted as part of the proposal, specifics about the myriad details related to infrastructure and utilities costs have not yet been finalized.
"There was a special need in this case," said Dave Litzelman, the city senior planner who recommended the city annex the properties.
The process had to be hastened, he said, because developers will soon ask the City Council to place a special tax district for Woodmen Heights on the November ballot -- that needs to be done prior to a deadline in August.
A tax district would help pay for roads, utilities and parks, Litzelman said. He added the annexation agreement should be done sometime this week.
Before voting, Councilwoman Margaret Radford expressed qualms: "I don't like approving annexations without the agreement in hand."
However, she joined the council in voting "yes." Councilmen Scott Hente, a developer, and Tom Gallagher, a commercial landscaper, abstained, citing the potential for conflict of interest because they work or serve the development industry.
The series of votes that led to the annexation prompted City Hall critic Lawson, as well as nearby residents, to cry foul. Lawson pointed out that in the last election cycle, seven of the winning City Council contenders received more than half of their campaign donations from the real estate and construction industry. The Woodmen Heights annexation, he said, is just another example of elected officials cozying up to developers.
Residents in the Horseshoe Rancheros Owner's Association, a neighborhood group representing the 15 homes in El Paso County nearby the Woodmen Heights property, said the council overlooked their concerns about quality of life, such as noise and air pollution.
One of their biggest concerns is the widening of roads, including turning Woodmen Road from a two-lane road into a six-lane expressway. Intersections are expected to be bustling.
"It's going to be congested forever," said Keli Stoddard, a Horseshoe Rancheros resident. "And we'll basically be boxed in."
Stoddard says the development is inconsistent with the city's Comprehensive Plan -- which dictates how growth should occur in Colorado Springs -- because it is "creating an enclave," which is not allowed under the plan.
Litzelman, however, maintains that he wouldn't recommend a proposal that was inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan.
Turning the lights on
When built, city budget analyst Lisa Bigelow says, Woodmen Heights will bring about $37.8 million in revenues to the city in the next 10 years.
The analysis is based on the developers' plans to complete more than 184,000 square feet of office space and 147,000 square feet of retail space by 2005 -- an "extremely aggressive" plan that will require the developers to act quickly to meet objectives without placing undue strains on the city's resources, she added.
The analysis was limited to the impacts on the city's general fund and its public-safety tax, and does not account for other impacts, including those to the municipally run Colorado Springs Utilities.
For Dave Gardner, a local resident who advocates growth paying its own way, that's a problem.
"Existing utility ratepayers will be saddled with the lion's share of the cost," he said, adding that large developments should be an ongoing concern for anyone who pays a utility bill in the city.
The average residential utilities bill is expected to rise in the coming decade from about $158 per month to $252, according to a recent projection.
Colorado Springs Utilities does not yet know exactly how much Woodmen Heights will cost ratepayers, said Morgan Charles, a policy analyst for the city-owned company.
While developers contribute a percentage of the costs of their projects, ratepayers also will shoulder some, Charles said. For example, using 2003 Utilities data, developers paid on average 40 percent of the upfront costs of bringing electricity to their developments and ratepayers covered the rest, Charles said. Similarly, developers pay 33 percent of upfront costs associated with gas and ratepayers covered 67 percent.
These percentages don't always apply and they are fluid given the complex nature of Utilities dealings, Charles said. But they might well apply for Woodmen Heights.
"It sounds like a large enough project that it would," he said.
-- Michael de Yoanna
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