With no notice or announcement to the public, the city quietly closed on its controversial deal to swap Strawberry Fields open space to The Broadmoor for other easements and land in the waning days of 2016.
The closing, reported first by the Independent on its website on Dec. 31, follows two favorable court rulings for the city in cases challenging the deal filed by Save Cheyenne, a nonprofit formed amid the controversy last year.
One case, recently dismissed by District Judge Michael McHenry, is expected to be challenged with an appeal to the Colorado Court of Appeals, says Save Cheyenne's president Richard Skorman, a downtown businessman and former vice mayor.
Noting the appeal could be filed as early as Tuesday, just after the Independent went to press, Skorman says, "If we are successful on appeal, we're going to ask the court to reverse this deal."
Parks Director Karen Palus sent an email to various parks officials and others on Dec. 30, announcing the closing, which included a conservation easement between The Broadmoor and the Palmer Land Trust that will make about 180 of the open space's acres open to the public while reserving 8.5 acres in Strawberry Fields' meadow for exclusive use by The Broadmoor and its guests. The resort plans to build a picnic pavilion and horse stable there.
Palus further elaborated on the swap's terms, noting the city gains 371 acres of wilderness land in the Mount Muscoco area and 9 acres adjacent to the county's Bear Creek Regional Park, along with 115 acres of new public trail easements for the Manitou Incline, Chamberlain Trail, Barr Trail, South Cañon Trail, and trails to Hully Gully.
"The public will continue to have access to all but 8.5 acres of the Strawberry Hill property to ensure conservation and recreation values are protected and public access is provided to the property in perpetuity," Palus wrote. "The conservation easement defines only an 8.5 acre private building envelope within the 180+ acre parcel to develop a picnicking area, horse stables and trail. In addition, the City received a public access easement over the entire parcel except the building envelope."
The deal was first disclosed to the public on Jan. 14, 2016, in a news release and immediately set off alarm bells among open space advocates. Several public meetings drew hundreds of people and triggered an avalanche of mail and email to City Council members from opponents.
Among supporters were the Trails and Open Space Coalition, Colorado Springs Forward and Mayor John Suthers.
Approved by Council on a 6-3 vote on May 24, the deal was challenged in court in August by Save Cheyenne. The group argued that Strawberry Fields, purchased by the city in 1885 after a vote of the people, can't be sold or traded without voters' permission, because it was dedicated as park land. The suit also argued that because Strawberry Fields has a greater value than land given to the city, the swap violates the state Constitution, which bars government gifts to corporations.
The city and The Broadmoor dismissed those arguments, asserting the city's home-rule authority and noting the land the city gets from the resort is valued at $3.6 million, versus Strawberry Fields' $1.6 million appraised value, negating the constitutional argument. (Save Cheyenne argues that price understates the open space's value.)
"The only thing that matters is whether the Broadmoor will provide consideration. It will," The Broadmoor argued in court papers, also noting the Colorado Supreme Court has previously ruled the ban on gifts doesn't apply if the gift "furthers a valid public purpose," which the land swap does by enabling the city to expand its parks and trail system.
Save Cheyenne also attempted to mount a ballot measure for the April city election that would have required voter approval of trades and sales of park land, but McHenry disallowed a provision that would have included the Strawberry Fields swap. Save Cheyenne dropped its attempt at an initiative.
Palus notes in her email that the master plan process for Strawberry Fields and North Cheyenne Cañon Park begins sometime this year, a point not lost on Save Cheyenne.
Skorman vows the group will be involved in that process. "We want to make sure there's no major construction [in the meantime at Strawberry Fields]," he says. "The good part is The Broadmoor will have to go through the planning process before they start moving dirt."