Wednesday, December 14, 2016

UPDATE: Strawberry Fields controversy continues

Posted By on Wed, Dec 14, 2016 at 4:43 PM

click to enlarge Strawberry Fields, at the center of a land exchange controversy. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Strawberry Fields, at the center of a land exchange controversy.

UPDATE:

After posting this blog, we heard from Kent Obee, who had this to say about the mayor's "response" during public comments, a rare if not unheard-of practice.

We didn't know whether to be honored or once again rolled when the mayor inserted himself into the "citizen discussion" on Tuesday. Probably the latter. A couple of comments about what the mayor claimed.

I assume you picked up on the fact that the 16 successful land exchange figures he touted included the current Broadmoor swap. In fact, it is about 80% of the total. Most of other 15 swaps were really fairly minor and the majority of them would have been covered by the exceptions we spelled out in our proposed ballot measure. The two big exceptions to the exceptions were the swaps with Lyda Hill involving Seven Falls and the reroute of 30th Street to accommodate the parking for the new Garden of the Gods visitors center. And, yes, those probably should have gone to a vote of the people.

When the mayor talked about future good swaps that were about to happen, I believe he was referring to a proposed change in the location of the yet-to-be-built Larry Ochs sports complex. We included land obtained through the PLDO [Park Land Dedication Ordinance, which requires developers to dedicate land in their developments] process in the list of exceptions saying it was not protected until the park was actually built and dedicated. That would have allowed this exchange to take place [Larry Ochs complex exchange].

————ORIGINAL POST 4:43 P.M. WEDNESDAY, DEC. 14, 2016————————-

In the continuing saga of Save Cheyenne's efforts, board president Richard Skorman and member Kent Obee asked City Council on Tuesday to refer a measure to voters that would require a vote of the people to sell or trade away the city's park land and open space.

The plea triggered a rare response from Mayor John Suthers. We say rare, because his comments came in response to Skorman's and Obee's comments during the public comment section of the agenda. The mayor has never spoken during Council's public comments before, as far as we know.

At issue is the city's swap of 189-acre Strawberry Fields open space to The Broadmoor last May. Save Cheyenne tried to mount a ballot measure for the April 2017 election that would roll back the deal, but a judge dashed those hopes, ruling against the nonprofit.

Skorman and Obee appeared Tuesday to ask if Council might consider such a measure, and in its absence, a policy that would bar sales and trades of park land and open space, like many other Colorado cities already require. Notably, that prohibition also exists for many of the city's own parks — ones that were purchased with money from a special tax for trails, open space and parks (known as TOPS).

"What we’re looking for is something along the lines of what we already have in the TOPS ordinance — no sale, no trade, no disposal without a vote of the people," Obee said. "We want to do what is done in many many other cities in this country. Denver, for instance, has an ordinance that is much stricter than anything we were thinking about."

The Denver measure was passed in 1955 and once a park is dedicated, it is not disposable even with a vote of the people. Land acquired before 1955 is subject to sale or trade if voters approve, he said.

"This is what we’d like to see," Obee said. "Park land is special."

After he spoke, Council President called on the mayor to weigh in. Suthers said:

I would ask you to be very careful. Yes, we all know of our tremendous park system. The city has used land exchanges to enhance the system many, many times, and we don’t want to take that away. The court has held that land transactions are inherently administrative. Council is wholly competent to make these decisions. I want to make sure and ask you to spend some time talking to the parks department about how land exchanges are performed. Historically, the city has used land exchanges… to the great benefit of the parks department.

Suthers noted there have been at least 16 land exchanges since the 1960s in which 267 acres of city land was traded to others for 638 acres for the city's park system.

"Garden of the Gods would not be what it is today without strategic land exchanges," Suthers said.

He also noted the city traded part of America the Beautiful Park to enable the Cimarron and Interstate 25 interchange. "You can’t hold up projects for a city election," he said. "There are circumstances where you have to act quickly."

Then Suthers spoke of impending trades but didn't name the developer involved. Could it involve the massive Banning Lewis Ranch?

I will tell you there’s a couple of land transactions that I’m confident you will unanimously think are in the interest of Colorado Springs, but it involves acting very quickly. And the developer isn’t going to sit around for two years for an election," Suthers said. "I personally believe it would be very bad public policy to say transactions of this nature have to go to the voters. You are incredibly competent to make these decisions.

It's worth noting that while Skorman and Obee followed the Council rule by limiting their comments to three minutes each, observers said Suthers was not held to the same limit.

Councilor Bill Murray pushed back, saying, "By making these [exchanges] inherently administrative, you make them at the whim and whimsy of whatever administration is in power at the time and whatever political forces ... I personally trust the voters. I trust their ability to make an informed decision, and I believe it belongs to you [voters], not an administrator."

Save Cheyenne's lawsuit alleging the land swap with The Broadmoor was illegal is pending in District Court.

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