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Moral of the story

No doubt about it: Banning Lewis Ranch, all 24,000 acres of it, is the future of Colorado Springs.

And we can all hope -- as I have -- that BL will become a cluster of humanly scaled neighborhoods, with mixed commercial/residential areas, lots of parks and trails, the whole modulated by a practical, thoughtful and intelligent master plan.

We can hope. But if the past is any guide, we're gonna get the bastard child of Briargate and Highlands Ranch. Expect thousands of acres of beige boxes crammed cheek-to-jowl on tiny lots, gigantic "neighborhoods" defined by eight-lane arterials lined with big-box retailers.

And so what? As Pike Oliver, who created the original BL master plan 18 years ago, once said, "The market does not oppose suburbanization." I expect that the folks who will live, work and play in the mega-burb will like it just fine. (Note that I didn't include "die" in the list -- denizens of new suburbs don't die, they just move away.)

And while City Council tries to extract a million smackers from BL's current owners, let's consider just why the city of Colorado Springs can claim that it's owed a million dollars for providing "services" to a vast tract of antelope pasture on the eastern fringes of our metropolitan wonderland.

I mean, c'mon: What were the cops and firefighters doing, stopping prairie fires and cattle rustling? Nope, the city government wasn't doing anything, other than applying the terms of the 1988 annexation agreement, which gave the city an annual payoff for well, for nothing. But let's go back to those halcyon days of yore.

In the mid-'80s, BL was owned by the Mobil Land Co., a subsidiary of Mobil Oil. Why a major oil company wanted to invest in land east of the Springs beats me, but it worked out -- they sold the ground to Frank Aries, a notorious Arizona developer, for more than $100 million. Aries, a smooth-talking, beefy, blustery guy who would have been well-suited to play the heavy in a movie about (what else?) crooked developers, had a plan.

He was nobody's fool. He had borrowed every nickel of the purchase price in a non-recourse note from a now-defunct Arizona Savings & Loan. Moreover, the S&L had agreed to open a line of credit to finance a master plan to be brought before City Council for annexation.

Aries then created another company, wholly owned by (guess who?) Frank Aries, to do the master plan. The rationale for all this? Aries had persuaded the S&L that once the land was master-planned and annexed by the city, its value would soar, he'd sell off a portion to other eager developers, repay the S&L, and everybody would make plenty of dough.

Whether Aries believed this, we'll never know, although it should be noted that developers -- salesmen all -- usually believe their own stories. In any case, his planning company would get a big payday once the land was annexed.

Several Council members and senior city planners liked the idea, but not then-Mayor Bob Isaac. Wily, cynical and smart, Isaac smelled a scam. He couldn't very well stop it single-handedly, but he did what he could, insisting that the city's fiscal interests be absolutely protected by the annexation agreement.

As a result, the final document was, and is, absurdly restrictive. No serious developer would have made the deal, but Aries no longer was a serious developer. He just wanted to get the property annexed, get the planning paycheck and get out of town.

Ultimately, the S&L went broke and Banning Lewis became the property of the so-called Resolution Trust, a federal entity formed to pick up the pieces after hundreds of S&Ls went belly up in the late '80s. When the dust settled, BL had been sold to new owners for $17 million. And Frank Aries? He last was spotted a few years back, disembarking from his mega-yacht in Miami.

So that's why the city gets to collect a quarter of a million annually to provide "services" to thousands of acres of empty prairie. It's because Frank Aries, almost 20 years ago, would have signed anything.

And the moral of the story? Wish I knew

-- johnhazlehurst@earthlink.net

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