Water has taken top bill in determining how the city grows. Colorado Springs City Council adopted a water ordinance on first reading on Jan. 10 — second reading is expected on Jan. 24. While rare, it’s possible Council will reverse that decision, considering the vote was a tight 5-4.
Voting for the ordinance were Wayne Williams, Mike O’Malley, Randy Helms, Nancy Henjum and Stephannie Fortune. Opposing the ordinance were Bill Murray, Yolanda Avila, Dave Donelson and Council President Tom Strand. (Williams and Strand are running for mayor in the April election.)
At issue is a measure that requires the city to have 130 percent of the water needed to serve customers on hand prior to extending service to new development. Also, the development in question must have 25 percent of its borders contiguous with the city’s existing city limits. The ordinance does allow for providing water service if a “unique and extraordinary event or circumstance necessitates an extension of water services to serve critical interests of the City.”
But the ordinance effectively bars annexation and providing water service to Amara, a proposed 3,200-acre planned unit development that’s bordered on three sides by the city of Fountain and would be connected to the city with a “flagpole” strip of land that runs along Bradley Road in southeast Colorado Springs. The development could host up to 10,000 homes.
After initially saying the city had an adequate water supply for Amara, Colorado Springs Utilities switched gears in early October, proposing the ordinance in order to create a “buffer” between water usage and water availability of 130 percent of demand. If Amara was granted its requested 3,500 acre feet of water, the city’s total water available would have to increase to 102,000 acre feet, higher than the current 95,000 acre feet. (The city currently uses about 73,000 acre feet of water.)
Amara’s developer, Doug Quimby, with La Plata Communities, has accused the region’s biggest developer, Norwood Development Group, of authoring the ordinance in order to kill competition, even as it fails to develop its roughly 20,000-acre Banning Lewis Ranch development on the city’s Eastside.
Moreover, the city’s housing crunch has become so severe that its Housing Opportunity Index, as reported by the Southern Colorado Economic Forum — a measure of homes available for sale that can be purchased by median-income buyers — has plummeted by 50 percent in just three years, from 71.4 percent to 22.7 percent, Quimby said in October.
After the Jan. 10 approval, Quimby withdrew the Amara proposal from the Jan. 11 Planning Commission agenda.
He tells Sixty35 news magazine in a phone interview the ordinance puts the squeeze on developers’ ability to provide housing stock in a city that already has a shortage.
“It assures that future growth in the city is going to take place only within BLR and other properties owned by Norwood,” he says. “The fact is, if you look at a map of the city and look at properties on the perimeter, there are some infill properties in the city, but only a couple thousand acres, and they’re all disconnected small parcels.”
The only large parcels are owned by Norwood, he says.
“There’s no parcel within the city outside of BLR that is suitable for master plan development of any scale,” he notes.
Now, he and other developers with tracts of land that lie east and southeast of the city must consider developing in El Paso County, he says.
He also notes that under an Intergovernmental Agreement adopted by the city and the county about two years ago, urban growth is supposed to take place in municipalities, not in the county, largely due to a lack of reliable water sources. Much of the development outside the city relies on groundwater, a finite source due to declining water tables, or small water districts that aren’t currently able to deliver water in the quantities needed for large developments.
“The city won’t annex, and Fountain doesn’t have [adequate] water,” he says. “So you have to go to the county, and then you have [to rely on] groundwater, though it’s not the most responsible thing to do. It probably means development is going to require the developer to bring additional water resources, and that adds to the cost, and those places won’t be affordable.”
All of that, Quimby says, means the city “is going to lose control of its perimeter” as developments pop up outside the city limits.
“You see how massive Banning Lewis Ranch is,” he adds. “Even by their [Norwood’s] own accounts, it’s a 50-plus-year build out, and there’s no room for anybody else. If you look at the calculation of the water ordinance, until they [Springs Utilities] get more water or total consumption goes down, there can only be 3,000 houses built.”
That raises concerns for El Paso County Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez Jr, who is also running for mayor in April.
“That is my concern, my question as well — pushing development into the county,” he tells Sixty35 by phone. “I don’t know if this water ordinance will decrease the effectiveness of that IGA. Does this push things to the county and result in less planned out growth patterns?”
He also fears adoption of the ordinance will lead to higher housing costs.
Thus, Gonzalez would like some answers, and soon.
“I’d love to have a meeting before they do a final vote on this,” he says. “I hope the city and county can met soon to discuss those concerns.”
Despite Fountain currently not owning adequate water rights or having the infrastructure necessary to accommodate Amara, Fountain City Manager Scott Trainor says the city is “supportive” of Amara.
“They are creative in their development approach and would provide much-needed housing to our region,” Trainor says via email. “That being said, communities like Fountain and Colorado Springs are increasingly under pressure to ensure that 1.) We have adequate water resources to meet our primary obligations to the existing ratepayers and developable land within our current boundaries, and 2.) We are planning for future water needs.
“When Fountain placed a pause on new annexations over a year ago — which impacted the Amara development — it was because we needed to review our water portfolio in light of development proposals that would have quadrupled the size of our community. Additionally, we needed to complete a Water Master Plan and look at strategies that would be sustainable for our community into the future,” Trainor says.
While Trainor notes Amara has indicated no interest now in being annexed into Fountain, “We are always open to the discussion. We have been transparent with them throughout our master planning process and are developing ideas that may help both our community and developers like Amara with their water needs. At the end of the day, water is a finite and dwindling resource and we all have to be smarter about how we manage it.”