Land swap opponents prepare suit, ballot measure over Strawberry Fields 

Battle lines drawn

click to enlarge Richard Skorman is leading Save Cheyenne, which plans to sue the city. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Richard Skorman is leading Save Cheyenne, which plans to sue the city.

A group opposed to the city's land swap with The Broadmoor will challenge the deal in district court as early as Friday.

The nonprofit Save Cheyenne, formed in response to the land swap, also plans a signature campaign to place a measure on the city's April 2017 ballot that would require a vote of the people to sell, transfer or trade any land dedicated as parks or public open space.

The Strawberry Fields land exchange was bitterly opposed by hundreds of residents prior to City Council's 6-3 approval on May 24. Councilors noted they received more feedback against the trade than any other issue in several years, but only Councilors Helen Collins, Jill Gaebler and Bill Murray voted no.

The focus remains on the 189-acre Strawberry Fields open space in Cheyenne Cañon, about nine acres of which The Broadmoor plans to use for a stable and picnic area for its guests. The remainder would be open for public use through a conservation easement.

"We think this is a terrible precedent to [trade] public land that's park land that's been in the family for 131 years, and was voted on by the voters who taxed themselves [to pay for it]," says Richard Skorman, former vice mayor and head of Save Cheyenne. "It's been used as a park all that time. We think it's a terrible precedent to say it's OK to trade or sell this property without a vote of the people."

The city unveiled the exchange to the public Jan. 14 after months of negotiations, as shown in emails and other documentation previously reported by the Independent. The city ordered an appraisal of Strawberry Fields in September, and later refused to release that appraisal and others until citizens filed an open-records lawsuit in April to force disclosure. Save Cheyenne was formed about that time.

When opponents questioned the legality of trading city open space, the City Attorney's Office issued an opinion saying Council could do so without voter approval under its home-rule powers. That opinion will be tested in a suit to be filed by attorney Charles Norton, hired by Save Cheyenne. Norton, a long-time law instructor who has taught trial practice at University of Denver's Sturm College of Law as well as courses in constitutional law at the University of Colorado Denver campus, and who helped set up the cities of Lone Tree and Castle Pines, says his new clients have a good case.

He cites a 1900 Colorado Supreme Court decision that reversed a lower court's ruling in a case involving Colorado Springs. When the city agreed to allow El Paso County to build a courthouse on park land, residents sued. They alleged the block was dedicated on the city's original plat as park land and couldn't be transferred to anyone or used for any other purpose.

The lower court ruled in the city's favor, but the state Supreme Court disagreed and "has not been overruled," Norton says. "It also has been recognized as binding as recently as 2013 by the Colorado Court of Appeals."

The ruling characterized the city's conveyance to the county as "an attempted appropriation of a portion of it for a use inconsistent with the purpose of the dedication, and of an entire alienation and abdication by the city — the trustee of the people — of its right to control the possession and regulate the use of [Alamo Square]."

That 1900 ruling also stated, "If the ground is dedicated for a park, the citizens — the beneficiaries of the trust — are entitled to the use of the whole."

Recapping the decision, Norton says, "If a park has been dedicated as a park, it cannot be transferred in any way, nor can uses be placed on it other than parks."

Alamo Square is where Pioneers Museum (originally the county courthouse) now stands. The ordinance specified that land could be used as a park or a public building, but not for commercial purposes.

Meantime, the city is working toward conveying Strawberry Fields to The Broadmoor. City spokesperson Kim Melchor reports that title work is in review, surveyors have been hired, an environmental study is underway and the city is working through required due diligence.

Norton says if the city proceeds with the conveyance, "The Broadmoor would take the property at its own risk."

Save Cheyenne has raised $95,000 from some 350 donors to fund the lawsuit and ballot measure. Skorman says up to 400 people stand ready to circulate petitions in late summer for the measure, which he called "a safety net" in case the lawsuit fails.

Local attorneys Steve Harris and Bill Louis have been hired to help with the measure, containing language identical to the Trails, Open Space and Parks initiative requiring a public vote to sell, trade and convey land obtained using TOPS funds.

The measure will target Garden of the Gods Park, Cheyenne Cañon Park, Ute Valley Park and perhaps others that lack deed protection, for legal preservation Skorman says.

Skorman says a decision is pending on whether to seek a City Charter amendment, for which 14,621 signatures are required, or an initiative, for which 19,532 signatures are needed, according to the City Clerk's Office.

If the issue makes the April 2017 ballot, it could become a hot-button issue for candidates seeking six Council seats up for election.

Should the measure pass, unless Save Cheyenne prevails in court, the earliest the city could ask voters to approve the Strawberry Fields deal would be April 2019, Skorman says.

Also, any ballot measure to sell a park, under Save Cheyenne requirements, would require the city to provide an appraisal  for its intended use and a site plan from the developer following a current master plan of the property 60 days ahead of any such election.

Save Cheyenne has obtained nonprofit status and has a website, savecheyenne.org, and an office above Skorman's downtown businesses on North Tejon Street.

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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