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City Council eyes yet another ballot measure about parkland transfers 

POPs 3.0

click to enlarge Save Cheyenne leader Kent Obee says his group wants voters to have a say in parkland sales. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Save Cheyenne leader Kent Obee says his group wants voters to have a say in parkland sales.
A third option for protecting Colorado Springs’ parks will vie for a ballot position on Aug. 13 with two others. The new so-called hybrid version calls for voter protection from sales or trades of city parkland for only the city’s major regional parks, such as Garden of the Gods and Palmer Park.

The proposed measure is opposed by Save Cheyenne, the League of Women Voters, Sierra Club and Aiken Audubon Society, who worked with city officials for five months to craft a Protect Our Parks (POPs) ballot question that calls for voter approval before the city could trade or sell city parkland, with exceptions for utility easements and the like.

Another measure proposed in late May by City Councilor Wayne Williams would vest control over trading or selling parkland with City Council, but require a 6-3 super-majority vote for such transfers.

The hybrid version came up during a lunch of Council members in the last week or so, and Council President Richard Skorman says there were enough councilor “head nods” around the table to direct Assistant City Attorney Mark Smith to draft the measure.

Council will discuss the new proposal during an Aug. 12 work session, and decide the following day which of the three to send to voters in the Nov. 5 election.

“There are a group of us who are pretty clear that the first proposal is the right one, and a lot of work went into it,” Skorman says, referring to the POPs measure.
After Save Cheyenne lost its legal challenge of Council’s 2016 approval (on a 6-3 vote) to trade the city’s 189-acre Strawberry Fields property, adjacent to North Cheyenne Cañon, to The Broadmoor, the group wanted to take the larger issue of parks protection to the voters.

In January, Save Cheyenne asked Council to submit a POPs question to the April city election ballot. Council demurred, but called for Save Cheyenne to work with other stakeholders to shape a measure all parties could support.

Over the next five months, meetings were held involving Save Cheyenne, the League, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Trails and Open Space Coalition, Palmer Land Trust, the Parks Advisory Board, City Council, Parks Director Karen Palus and Mayor’s Chief of Staff Jeff Greene.

After a draft measure was written, during a May 28 Council meeting with Mayor John Suthers, Williams, who didn’t participate in the five-month process, suggested a replacement measure. His idea called for all parkland transfers to be decided by a 6-3 vote of Council.

Now, the hybrid idea has arisen, which would authorize a vote of the people for transfer of parkland from only the city’s largest parks, including North Cheyenne Cañon Park, Garden of the Gods, Palmer Park, Rock Ledge Ranch and Ute Valley Park. (Some of those, such as Palmer Park, already have protective deed restrictions.)

All other parkland would be subject to trade or sale by a 6-3 Council vote.

Save Cheyenne leader Kent Obee says in an email that his group, the League, Sierra Club and Audubon Society “reject this ‘compromise’ ... and will continue to push for an up or down vote by the Council on the full voter protection version of POPS produced by the City POPS committee.”

Obee says no other city in Colorado relies on a hybrid plan; instead, most cities in the state have adopted measures that mirror POPs in requiring voter approval to convey parkland.

The hybrid, Obee says, “undercuts our basic premise that the parks belong to the people and the people should have the final say when parkland is conveyed.”

League member Marcy Morrison says it would be shameful if some of the city’s smaller parks, named for volunteers, donors and city officials, were someday liquidated without a say from voters.

For example, the late Nancy Lewis, longtime parks director, is the namesake for a park, and Eugene McCleary Park bears the name of the late former mayor. Other examples abound.

Notably absent from the new hybrid measure’s list are the city’s community parks, which include America the Beautiful Park, Cottonwood Creek Park and Memorial Park.
The list also wouldn’t contain Jimmy Camp Creek Park in northeast Colorado Springs.

Those 700 acres, adjacent to Banning Lewis Ranch, remain undeveloped. Obee and others wonder if the city is negotiating a deal involving the Jimmy Camp property.

“Don’t wonder,” Murray tells the Independent via email, “that is the plan.”

“In an attempt to block POPS from appearing on the ballot to likely success, the mayor is throwing a lot of chaff to confuse the issues,” Murray says. “There are developers who are interested in current park lands for development.”

The city obtained the Jimmy Camp land 20 years ago from the developer that owned the property at that time, but budget constraints have prevented its development as a park.

Even under the POPs measure, though, Jimmy Camp wouldn’t be protected as long as it remains undeveloped. That’s because the POPs measure would exempt from voter protection all land acquired through the Parkland Dedication Ordinance that hasn’t been improved as a park, a provision to which Save Cheyenne agreed.

“When that parkland is developed, that parkland would then be added to the [POPs protection] designation list,” Parks Director Karen Palus tells the Indy.

Jimmy Camp borders the 20,000-acre Banning Lewis Ranch, most of which belongs to Nor’wood Development Group, the region’s biggest developer. Nor’wood mentioned the possibility of making some of those acres available to the city as parks or open space back in 2014 when it bought the property.

Dismissing plans to trade away a portion of Jimmy Camp, Palus says, “There are currently no pending transactions with Jimmy Camp Creek at this time.”

But Suthers, who has expressed support for the 6-3 Council vote measure and disdain for the idea of voters weighing in on parkland transfers, said during the May 28 Council meeting that if POPs passed, he worried voters could obstruct a Jimmy Camp area deal.

“It’s very conceivable to me that some rich person is going to offer us a deal that needs to close by the end of the year for tax purposes,” Suthers said, speaking generically.

If a landowner offered the city a fantastic deal, he added, “We’re going to say, ‘Sorry, we have to take it to a vote [of the people].’”
POPs isn’t the only ballot measure city voters might see in November. Council is expected to refer at least three others on Aug. 13:

• Permission for the city to retain $7 million in revenue that exceeds the city’s cap under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, with the money earmarked for parks.
• A five-year extension of the city’s sales tax for roads, at the slightly lower rate of .57 percent, compared to the .62 percent approved by voters for five years in 2015.
• A Charter change that would push Council’s leadership votes from the Tuesday following April city elections to June.

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