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A call to reject the Banning Lewis Ranch Annexation Agreement, lest it leave us worse off 

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On April 24 our Colorado Springs City Council will be asked to approve amendments to the 1988 Banning Lewis Ranch Annexation Agreement. Council is told these are needed in order to jump-start development. Otherwise that development may occur outside the city limits, denying our city some of the tax revenue generated by the construction and by the spending of future residents. But not so fast.

That tax revenue is no use to us if the cost of providing city services to those residents exceeds the revenue. It makes no sense to enter a business deal in which you lose money. The city will be worse off, less able citywide to provide critical services like police and fire, street maintenance and public transit, and less able to complete or maintain parks.

The proposed amendments will, unquestionably, shift some of the costs of needed infrastructure from developers, builders and new residents to the city (and therefore all taxpayers in the city). We’re told this is necessary because the annexation agreement’s requirement that developers of Banning Lewis foot most of the bill for required infrastructure is apparently preventing development from taking place in the ranch.

Let’s assume this is true, that development of the ranch would have begun long ago if all the taxpayers of the city had been providing a little more development subsidy rather than requiring the development to nearly pay its way. This doesn’t automatically mean we should increase the subsidy today. Thousands of acres in our city have been developed since 1988. This has been happening in areas not subject to the requirements of that annexation agreement, because it is cheaper for the developers. It’s only natural they would first build in the areas with the highest profit potential. That doesn’t mean they won’t develop in Banning Lewis Ranch as other developable acreage in the city is used up. We may be on the verge of an era in which development doesn’t impoverish our city.

A few city staff members urging Council to amend have presented a fiscal impact analysis to show that the city will come out ahead by $1.6 million a year over the next 30 years if we amend and lighten up on requiring that development to pay its way. That study and figure don’t provide a sound, compelling reason to amend.

  • $1.6 million per year is an insignificant amount. A small error or unanticipated twist in circumstances could easily plunge the city into the red trying to meet the needs of what may eventually be 180,000 residents of the ranch.

  • Assuming development of the ranch does generate a fiscal surplus for the city, the surplus will be bigger, and therefore more reliable and useful, if we don’t consume so much of it creating the infrastructure developers would provide under the current annexation agreement.

  • Development may occur in the ranch without the proposed development subsidy, once the more-profitable-to-develop areas of the city are built out.

  • The analysis showed the (tiny) surplus only because it assumed the city will continue to provide substandard levels of police protection and street maintenance (and no public transit service). If the city gets service levels up to desired standards, the cost of doing this in Banning Lewis Ranch will more than consume the projected surplus. It will put the city more deeply into the red than we are today.
Proponents of the amendment also contend we need it because the current agreement is unfair to the property owners in the ranch. They argue we need to treat those owners and developers exactly as we treat developers in other parts of the city. This argument doesn’t fly, because fairness is already taking place. Anyone who purchased land within the ranch since 1988 paid a price that reflected the annexation requirements. That price was lower than other land in the city because of the contractual requirements attached to the ranch. Anyone who owned the land prior to the annexation became a party to that annexation agreement in order to benefit from annexation. Their land escalated in value the instant it was annexed into the city. We don’t “owe” them anything more.

It may make sense to consider some adjustments to this 30-year-old agreement, as long as they…

1) Do not shift any costs from developer to city.

2) Do result in a better Banning Lewis Ranch, one that puts to use what we’ve learned about city-making over the past 30 years.

Today, while the current agreement is in effect and developers want some changes, we’re in an enviable position that allows us to require transit-oriented development, dedication of desired open space, dedication of land and construction of parks, pedestrian and bike corridors, bus rapid transit lanes, etc., in exchange for some updates to the agreement. The proposed amendments do none of this. It gives away our bargaining power in return for nothing. And it’s based on the erroneous assumptions outlined above.

I’d like to think our city councilors will recognize this and reject this proposal. I’m sure you would, too. But what I hear is that the proponents have the votes to pass these proposed amendments, and on April 24 give away any chance of our city being able to provide desired levels of service far into the future. That vote will gut the annexation agreement and give away any chance of our city managing development in a way that’s truly smart for the 21st century.

A vote for the amendments is a vote to subsidize development, sentence us to decades of upside-down city budgets, guarantee decades more of substandard city services, and give us more Academy Boulevards rather than a city that works, a city with high quality of life, and a city of which we can be proud.

Don’t assume your council will do the right thing. They are being lobbied and propagandized heavily by those who want this giveaway. They need to hear from you. Please call them, write them, and show up on April 24 to tell them you care about our future.

— Dave Gardner

Dave Gardner is a local sustainability advocate as well as a film and radio producer and director, responsible for such works as 2011’s GrowthBusters.

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