As the city's proposed Broadmoor land swap enters the decision-making stage, opponents are organizing to try to block the deal, which calls for trading the city's 189-acre Strawberry Fields, purchased for public park land in 1885, to the resort hotel.
About 25 people attended an organizational meeting last weekend at the home of Richard Skorman, the former vice mayor who helped the city pass, and extend, its Trails Open Space and Parks tax.
Meantime, the city last Friday denied the Independent access to appraisals of the tracts in question, citing a portion of the Colorado Open Records Act that says officials "may deny the right of inspection" to real estate appraisals "until such time as title to the property or property interest has [been] passed" to the city.
Skorman called the denial "a huge breach of the public trust."
"It would be my expectation they would want this to be as transparent as possible," he says, "especially with all the acrimony involved in this. I would hope that this is a public trust, and they don't want to appear to be doing something in secret."
Opponents will meet in the next couple of weeks to organize volunteers and raise money for a possible court challenge, Skorman reports. "Everybody's quite passionate, and we're definitely going to become our own action committee to try to influence the decision-makers," he says.
Council hears a briefing on April 11, and the Parks Advisory Board votes on a recommendation to Council on April 14.
If Council approves the deal, opponents can accept that or go to court, because the city's real estate manual says, "As the decision to enter into a land exchange is an administrative act, there is no right to appeal City Council's approval or denial of a land exchange proposal."
At issue is a swap of open space and a parking lot near the Cog Railway terminal for Broadmoor land, termed an "exciting" move by the city when introduced Jan. 14. The city would receive 87 acres of trail easements, 156 acres of the Manitou Incline, nine acres east of El Paso County's Bear Creek Regional Park and 208 acres near Mount Muscoco. Total value: $3,611,200, according to The Broadmoor's appraiser, Thomas Colon and Associates of Colorado Springs.
The Broadmoor would receive Strawberry Fields, valued at $1,581,000, and the Cog Railway parking lot, valued at $580,000. Total value: $2,161,000, according to city-hired appraiser Kyle Wigington.
The Broadmoor has vowed to place a conservation easement on the land and use only nine acres, which covers the Strawberry Fields meadow, for a horse stable and picnic pavilion for 100 Broadmoor guests. The public would be allowed permanently to use the rest.
Questions are rampant over the appraisals' methodology. For example, the Bear Creek nine-acre tract appraisal apparently took into account its residential zoning, resulting in a value of $155,555 per acre. But if Strawberry Fields were valued on the same basis, its worth would exceed $29 million, according to a letter to City Councilor Bill Murray from real estate broker/Realtor Mike Dorsey.
Dorsey called the city's Strawberry Fields appraisal "complete nonsense." Compared to the Bear Creek lots, Strawberry Fields is "infinitely better and way more valuable." In fact, if it were developed, the site's value would soar beyond $50 million, he says, based on comparables in the area. Even a more modest estimate that considers only the buildable portions puts the value at $10.3 million, according to Kent Obee, a former chair of both the TOPS Working Committee and the Parks Advisory Board.
Like the city, The Broadmoor isn't releasing its appraisals, which were funded by The Broadmoor. Whether The Broadmoor's appraisals are considered city records isn't clear, but the city is relying on them to make decisions.
According to the manual, all real property acquisitions are subject to the city's rules, except for certain ones, including "other agreements with public or private entities." So, whether this swap is subject to the city's regulations is up for debate.
Regardless, the manual describes what's to be contained in appraisals, including "the appraiser's concise, summarized and pertinent statements and analyses of the appraisal process." If the city's and property owner's appraisals "are so far apart as to have negative impact effect on negotiations," the manual states, an appraisal review can be ordered. There's no evidence the city has conducted its own appraisal of The Broadmoor's property — only The Broadmoor's appraiser has appraised its property.
If a review appraisal were conducted, a consultant would validate facts, assumptions and analyses as correct and thorough, and determine whether the documentation provided "demonstrates the soundness of the appraisers' opinion of value."
Moreover, City Code requires an "Environmental Review or Audit to be performed for any property interest that the City intends to acquire through the normal acquisition process." That review contains the estimated cleanup or remediation cost of recognized conditions, which are considered in determining fair market value. It's unclear if that's been done in this case.
Murray, who attended the March 30 meeting, tells Parks Director Karen Palus in an April 1 letter the appraisals are "suspect" but doesn't elaborate. He notes the Bear Creek lots shouldn't count in value to the city, because the plan is to transfer that land to the county.
Murray also poses numerous questions, including why the city claims it can't afford to maintain Strawberry Fields adequately but is eager to take on more land in the swap. In addition, Murray notes he was "surprised" The Broadmoor didn't reveal more details of its building plans, a point made by several opponents on March 30 and since in letters to Council. Opponents also argue a North Cheyenne Cañon master plan should precede Council's action on the swap, not come later; they also argue for a vote of the people.
"I will point out this is a publicly owned park," opponent Lara Rowell says in a letter on Monday to the city, "and requires the public owners to decide what to do with it."
Murray notes more than 3,500 people have signed an online petition opposing the trade of Strawberry Fields, and he asks Palus how many people have expressed support. Palus tells the Indy via email the city has received 464 comments, though "some folks have responded multiple times." She did not say how many of those support the trade. Numerous residents have said at meetings they back the exchange, including the influential Trails and Open Space Coalition, whose board's support is contingent on specific conditions being met.