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Strawberry Fields in Cheyenne Cañon is on the table for a swap with The Broadmoor 

click to enlarge A meadow in Strawberry Fields, west of the Penrose House and south of Mesa Avenue, provides a serene respite. - COURTESY DONNA STROM
  • Courtesy Donna Strom
  • A meadow in Strawberry Fields, west of the Penrose House and south of Mesa Avenue, provides a serene respite.

Those who've hiked Strawberry Fields in southwest Colorado Springs use reverent tones to describe it. Peaceful, a natural preserve for foxes, bears, owls, deer and even a lynx or two, "a pristine little area."

Now these 189.5 acres of city-owned property lie at the center of a proposed exchange of land with The Broadmoor. The five-star resort wants Strawberry Fields, also called Strawberry Hill, for a horse stable and is offering scattered parcels on the west and southwest sides that city officials say would advance trail connections contained in the Park System Master Plan 2014-2025.

But many don't take kindly to the idea of selling a scenic parcel that's been part of the city for 130 years. Within two weeks of the trade being sprung on the public in a Jan. 14 city release about "an exciting opportunity," opponents began an online petition and flooded City Council with mail.

"It's easily 10-to-one opposed," Councilor Bill Murray says, noting the issue has sparked more citizen feedback than any other issue in the last year. "It's really hit a very specific nerve. You're talking about giving away prime park property that will never be recovered."

But preventing Strawberry Fields from slipping into private hands seems like a long shot. The deal has the blessing of Mayor John Suthers, city parks personnel, some nonprofit groups and one of the richest corporate citizens in the region — Broadmoor owner Philip Anschutz, whose daily newspaper, The Gazette, has endorsed the swap.

The trade would give the city 371 acres owned by The Broadmoor and valued at $3.3 million in exchange for Strawberry Fields, valued at $1.6 million, although Parks Director Karen Palus acknowledges in an interview those figures might change after the city conducts "a formal appraisal."

Here's a map of the details, but in a nutshell the deal would help the city close ownership gaps on the Chamberlain Trail, Barr Trail and the Manitou Incline.

The largest piece, 208 acres on the southwest boundary of Cheyenne Cañon Park, includes part of Muscoco Trail, Mount Muscoco Overlook and Daniels Pass Trail.

Michael Chaussee, who frequently hikes Strawberry Fields and Pikes Peak, says the swap isn't a fair trade. In a Feb. 2 letter to Council and Suthers, he notes access to Strawberry Fields is easy from several sides, while Muscoco requires advanced technical expertise, including "bushwhacking in difficult terrain" and rappelling down a rock face.

The Broadmoor also would give the city nine acres east of 21st Street adjacent to Bear Creek Regional Park, acquired by the resort for $1 million about a year ago for which the resort sought to change residential zoning to accommodate a horse stable. But that request was put on ice in April after residents protested, citing traffic disruption, flies and the resort's "sweetheart deal" for a 20-year, $18,000-per-year lease with El Paso County to use the park for trail rides. Broadmoor chairman Steve Bartolin said at the time he withdrew the plan because the park didn't provide an "authentic" wilderness experience.

That was the resort's second failed attempt to use public land. In 2013, it shelved a proposal to close Cheyenne Mountain Boulevard, which is flanked by its golf courses, after neighbors pounded Council with protests, labeling the road a crucial exit in case of wildfire.

But The Broadmoor again became a player for public land when city officials started looking to secure trail connections while minimizing costs in compliance with the parks master plan. Palus says talks began with former Mayor Steve Bach's chief of staff Steve Cox and were continued by Suthers' chief of staff Jeff Greene.

Chief among the tracts the city wants is an area along Manitou Incline. "We talked about the potential to purchase the Manitou Incline area, because we're spending so much money," Palus says. The city spent $2 million to overhaul the incline in recent years and is preparing to spend another $1 million in operations and maintenance "on property the city doesn't own," she notes. "If you're going to take care of something, it makes sense to own it."

Meantime, the city's Trails and Open Space Working Committee started talking about buying the Broadmoor's nine acres next to Bear Creek Park.

"The advantage of doing some type of property exchange and being able to bring in twice as much acreage allows those dollars available in TOPS to go to other projects," Palus says. She declined to identify TOPS' priorities.

Because the city also wants to extend Chamberlain Trail, which ultimately will link with Cheyenne Mountain State Park to the south, city officials put Strawberry Fields on the table, she says.

"We were looking at a way to do a swap," she says. "Our goal is to find ways to partner and collaborate, minimize our costs and improve upon our properties. The ability to do this exchange allows us to do that. This is 2-1 in acreage — 371 acres to 189 acres — so that's a significant increase to our overall parks program."

Richard Skorman, open space advocate and former vice mayor, notes the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services department is still "living in the shadow of the recession" when its general fund appropriation was slashed from $19.6 million in 2008 to $3.7 million in 2010 ("Pretty, ugly," May 26, 2011). This year's general fund spending on parks will total about $16 million.

But while Skorman calls the resort "a great corporate citizen in many ways," he notes The Broadmoor is offering land "they don't want or need" in exchange for "something they very much cherish." He adds that Strawberry Fields, while something of a well-kept secret, is "a key piece of Cheyenne Cañon," which he calls one of the top five Wilderness Parks in the nation. The open meadows and rolling trails, he says, could relieve pressure on the overused Stratton Open Space and Red Rock Canyon Open Space.

Moreover, he and others have noted the city recently did fire mitigation in Strawberry Fields. That effort mitigated 35.9 acres, Palus says via email, at a cost of $95,745. Of that, $38,298 was city money and $57,447 came from a Colorado State Forest Service grant.

The Broadmoor declined to comment for this story.

The city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Board will discuss the swap at its 7:30 a.m. meeting on Thursday at 1401 Recreation Way, though it's not likely to vote on a recommendation for City Council. That will come later, Palus says, and Council isn't expected to act for a couple of months, pending public outreach.

Part of that process is a city survey, which asks for respondents' overall view of the proposal, whether the city's website addressed their concerns, what concerns they have, swhat else the city and Broadmoor should consider, and their residential ZIP code. Opponents say the survey could be taken multiple times by the same person. When the Independent tried to access the survey, the city's website said an invitation was required. That's since been removed, however, and the survey can no longer be taken more than once per person.

Regardless, groups are already developing their stances. Incline Friends favor the swap, while Friends of Bear Creek Park haven't yet committed to either support or oppose the land swap.

The Council of Neighbors and Organizations hasn't taken a position on the swap either but rather is calling for a "robust public process."

Those against include cycling group Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates and Friends of Cheyenne Cañon, which said in a Jan. 29 statement that the "sacrifice of Strawberry Hill in this all-or-nothing deal is the antithesis of preserving and protecting open space for the enjoyment of the citizens of Colorado Springs."

An online petition mounted by neighbors had drawn nearly 1,700 signatures as of Tuesday. Opponents are spreading the word via Facebook, email chains and by talking to reporters. Rachel Rocks, Kathy Meinig and Lara Rowell came to the Indy last week, armed with colorful photos, maps and historic documents — including a 1884 Gazette editorial calling for preservation of Cheyenne Cañon areas for public use.

"It's a public space that the city has just decided they're going to barter away to a private entity for profit," Rowell says. "We don't generally do that in a democracy." Noting that citizens voted in 1885 to buy Strawberry Fields, Rocks says, "Those people thought they were voting to keep that space forever." And Meinig adds, "It's interesting the city would be looking to reverse that."

They also point out that no environmental impact statement has been conducted to reveal how a change of use would impact wildlife at Strawberry Fields — a concern shared by the Cheyenne Cañon friends group. (Asked the stable's size and number of horses proposed, Palus says, "We haven't really dug through it all yet.")

Still on the fence is the influential Trails and Open Space Coalition. Executive Director Susan Davies says the board will weigh the proposal at its Feb. 25 meeting, taking into account the swap's "conservation values" and how the exchange "aligns with the city parks master plan." Meantime, TOSC is calling for a "comprehensive public process where members of the community get a chance to ask questions and be heard."

Skorman expressed concerns over community divisiveness because the proposal is seen as good for some but not for others. That's why he suggests hitting the pause button until summer.

"Let's take people out there," he says, "and show them why The Broadmoor is willing to give up so much."

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