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May 27, 2020 News » Cover Story

The city’s 2016 land exchange with The Broadmoor was a game-changer in several ways 

Strawberry Preserve

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK
  • Shutterstock


H
ead down Mesa Avenue west from The Broadmoor hotel and notice what’s not off to the left just before you reach Seven Falls.

There, in a pristine meadow amid a 189-acre open space commonly called Strawberry Fields, you’ll find an empty space.

Four years ago, The Broadmoor hotel expressed urgency in its plans to build a stable and picnic pavilion for its guests on 8.5 acres in the heart of Strawberry Fields, a city-owned open space that City Council voted 6-3 on May 24, 2016, to convey to the hotel.

In exchange, the city acquired an assortment of trail easements and wildland property held by the resort.

But today, not a spade of dirt has been turned on the stable project.

Regardless, a lot has happened in the last four years. Notably, the city and others have pumped more than $1.4 million into parks and trails in Strawberry Fields and elsewhere in city’s west and southwest.

The Broadmoor spent $51,000 on drainage work and an undisclosed sum on fire mitigation and trail development throughout the open space.

But the land swap served as a game-changer in other ways. The deal:

• Gave rise to a citizen group, Save Cheyenne, which formed specifically to oppose the exchange and later entangled the swap in litigation for two years. The group now advocates for a ballot measure, likely headed for the November ballot, that would require the city to obtain voter approval before disposing of park land.
• Sparked significant public engagement in city parks planning. Hundreds, if not thousands, participated in Strawberry Fields public meetings and the subsequent and related North Cheyenne Cañon Park master plan, adopted in mid-2018.
• Bred suspicion among citizens over city government’s willingness to give away a prime parcel to the politically influential posh resort, owned by a multibillionaire businessman. Feelings of resentment and bitterness still linger.
• Created a citizen backlash that led to the election in 2017 of Save Cheyenne’s leader Richard Skorman to City Council. A vigorous opponent of the swap, Skorman, in a red-faced outburst at one public meeting, accused the city of conducting “the worst public process I’ve ever been involved with.”
• Set a new standard for public engagement that some say appears more rigorous, though some express little confidence that their voices are actually heard.

click to enlarge New trails have been built on the Strawberry Fields open space. - COURTESY DONNA STROM
  • Courtesy Donna Strom
  • New trails have been built on the Strawberry Fields open space.

But some say the most important outcome is on display at the beloved Strawberry Fields itself. Once a well-kept secret, used mostly by loitering teens and immediate neighbors, the open space today draws throngs of hikers and cyclists.

“It’s starting to be pretty heavily used,” says Skorman. “There was an argument that this is just an appendage of Cheyenne Cañon, and nobody will care much [if it’s handed to The Broadmoor].

“The reality is,” he continues, “The Broadmoor did a nice job with the trails, and it goes to show it wasn’t just an area with garbage that nobody cares about, a place for kids to drink beer and smoke pot. This is a major new park that people love.”

The land exchange was the city’s most complicated and far-reaching in its then 145-year history. It folded in land from North Cheyenne Cañon to the Manitou Incline and changed ownership or access on roughly 677 acres.

Announced in a news release on Jan. 14, 2016, on which The Broadmoor had prior input, the city proposed to give Strawberry Fields, also known as Strawberry Hill, to the resort in exchange for:

• 154.6 acres of land in the Incline and Barr Trail areas.

• 8.61 undeveloped acres east of Bear Creek Regional Park where The Broadmoor once envisioned a stable operation but abandoned the idea after marketing studies showed guests preferred a more adventurous experience.

• 208 acres around Mount Muscoco, a hard-to-reach wildland site.

• An assortment of easements for Hully Gully hiking area, and the Chamberlain Trail, which will ultimately extend from Garden of the Gods Park to Cheyenne Mountain State Park.

After opponents filed a lawsuit to force disclosure of appraisals of the property, the city revealed that a Broadmoor-hired appraiser valued those tracts at $3.6 million.

When citizens challenged those values, a city-hired consultant reviewed them and decreased the combined value by $1,400.

On the city side, city-hired appraiser Kyle Wigington valued two tracts the resort would receive. He determined that Strawberry Fields was worth $1.58 million, or 33 percent less than the $2.4 million market value the El Paso County Assessor’s Office assigned to the property.

He valued a half-acre parking lot at the Manitou Incline’s base at $580,000. Owned by Colorado Springs Utilities, the lot lies adjacent to the Manitou Hydro Electric facility to which Utilities would retain an access easement. The Broadmoor would use it for parking for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, which runs from Manitou Springs to the top of Pikes Peak but was shut down in 2018 for a multi-year overhaul.

Citizens disputed those values, and a person whose identity hasn’t been disclosed filed a complaint with the Colorado Board of Real Estate Appraisers. On Nov. 2, 2017, the board ruled Wigington’s work file on Strawberry Fields “did not contain documentation in support of the judgments made.” The board ordered him to pay a fine and take classes in such things as “highest and best use” and other appraisal skills.

However, the action apparently has since been overturned, because the state’s licensing website shows, “No discipline or board actions on file” for Wigington.

When the Indy asked the Department of Regulatory Agencies to explain, a state official said, “...there are no publicly available documents regarding the complaint against Kyle Wigington.”

Asked about that, Wigington tells the Indy, “You’ve got the official deal from the state. That’s what you’re going to get.”

click to enlarge Richard Skorman, former leader of Save Cheyenne, helped raise awareness of the Strawberry Fields deal in 2016. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Richard Skorman, former leader of Save Cheyenne, helped raise awareness of the Strawberry Fields deal in 2016.

As opposition mounted in 2016, the city suggested The Broadmoor place Strawberry Fields into a conservation easement under oversight of the Palmer Land Trust. The easement agreement, a public document, imposed maintenance requirements and mandated all but 8.5 acres in a prime meadow earmarked for the stable and picnic pavilion be open to public use.

Periodic reports of The Broadmoor’s compliance with the easement’s requirements are not open to the public, but Land Trust President and CEO Rebecca Jewett reports to the Indy via email that the hotel has performed as promised.

“The master plan for the property was approved by Palmer Land Trust on June 6, 2018 and it continues to guide all activities on the property,” she said. She notes The Broadmoor built a section of the Chamberlain Trail between Mesa and Old Stage roads, performs annual maintenance and has conducted fire mitigation throughout the parcel.

The city-approved master plan for the stable and pavilion allowed the 8.5-acre “building envelope” to shift from its original location, which angered some opponents of the deal.

The stable/pavilion project appears to be the reason The Broadmoor wanted to gain control of Strawberry Fields and, along with Mayor John Suthers, hotel officials pressured some Parks Advisory Board members to recommend approval of the land swap, according to reports at the time.

The hotel, owned by multibillionaire Philip Anschutz, also lined up numerous influential high-profile organizations to support the deal. They included the Trails and Open Space Coalition, Pikes Peak Lodging Association, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, Colorado Springs Forward, El Pomar Foundation, the Convention and Visitors Bureau (now Visit Colorado Springs) and the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs.

Emails obtained by the Indy reveal the resort wanted the stable project fast-tracked. “Our intent, as you know, is to finalize approvals by the end of April, if not earlier, so late summer construction might be feasible,” urban planner Les Gruen, working for The Broadmoor, wrote on Dec. 29, 2015, to Parks Department chief Karen Palus and mayor’s Chief of Staff Jeff Greene. He also suggested in emails other ways to push through the picnic facility quicker.

Emails also showed The Broadmoor looped certain city officials into a plan to downplay the stable area. Broadmoor Chairman Steve Bartolin, for example, urged the city to be vague about what would go there. “Just saying picnicking seems adequate,” he said in a Jan. 14 email after previewing the city’s news release.

click to enlarge The swap dealt about 9 acres of land just east of Bear Creek Regional Park to the city. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • The swap dealt about 9 acres of land just east of Bear Creek Regional Park to the city.

Later, amid Save Cheyenne’s appeal of a district court decision that ruled in The Broadmoor’s and city’s favor, the resort asked the Palmer Land Trust and the Trails and Open Space Coalition to sign and submit a “friend of the court” brief written by The Broadmoor, supporting the land swap. Both demurred.

Despite the apparent urgency of the project, though, that site contains no sign of imminent construction, and the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department reports no building permit has been issued in that area.

“They [The Broadmoor] retain the right to develop at any time according to this plan,” Jewett noted.

Former city parks official at the time of the swap, Chris Lieber, who now is an owner of NES, the planning firm that handled the stable’s master plan on The Broadmoor’s behalf, said he couldn’t provide a timeline for construction and referred questions to The Broadmoor, which didn’t respond to a request for comment. The resort closed for business in March due to the coronavirus pandemic and plans to reopen June 28.

The lack of progress on the stable project confuses some neighbors, among them Dana Duggan.

She calls it “curious” that nothing has happened there, considering The Broadmoor built a convention center addition east of the main hotel within eight months.

“Many wonder if the next step is to file to change PK [park] Zoning and dissolve the conservation easement to allow for a hotel extension to serve the additional traffic from the recently expanded convention center,” she says. Duggan also still takes issue with the appraisal and the city’s acceptance of what she calls “some swampland and a massive liability, the Incline, into perpetuity,” referring to the Bear Creek property and the Manitou Incline easements.

No request for a zone change has been filed with the city.

City officials point to a long list of accomplishments set in motion by the land swap.

• Strawberry Fields. South Chamberlain Trail trailhead and North Cheyenne Cañon Park’s parking lot cost the city $22,000; trails within Strawberry Fields and drainage work cost $51,000, funded by The Broadmoor, which also invested an undisclosed amount in fire mitigation.

• Chamberlain Trail to Broadmoor Bluffs. The city paid $5,800 for a boundary survey.

• Daniels Pass Trail and Muscoco Trail. The city plans to spend $100,000 for trails and a master plan, along with a $250,000 grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and $25,000 from the Friends of Cheyenne Cañon, by the end of this year.

Park planner David Dietemeyer points to GPS data obtained from a phone-based trails app that enables the city to track usage. “Heat maps” created by the data register a more vivid line as usage grows. While actual visitor numbers aren’t available, he says, “The 2020 Strava map depicts that more use is occurring on the Muscoco Trail ... than was occurring in 2016.” Usage in Strawberry Fields also has risen, he says.

• North Cheyenne Cañon. The city has spent or will spend about $550,000 and friends groups another $35,000, on completing a master plan for the park, building or rehabbing trails, parking improvements and acquiring easements for trails. Much of that work involves areas not included in the land exchange but was accommodated by it, the city says.

Asked to explain, Dietemeyer says in a statement all those projects stemmed from an update of the master plan, which he said was “a commitment the City of Colorado Springs made to the community during the Land Exchange.

“These improvements were only possible with the new master plan, which was successful as a direct result of the well-attended and well-supported community engagement master planning process,” he says.

• Gold Camp Trailhead and parking lot upgrades will cost the city $373,913. Additional projects involving Bruin Inn picnic area, Creekside Trail and a variety of other trails will cost the city $94,500, while Friends of Cheyenne Cañon will chip in another $15,000.

Like the Cheyenne Cañon work, those areas were not part of the land exchange, but Dietemeyer links them to the land swap anyway.

“The improvements were a direct result of the recommendations from the North Cheyenne Cañon Park Master and Management Plan. They would not nor could not be implemented without the newly approved master plan,” he says.

• Northern Incline Trail project, due to start this year, will provide an alternate trail to Barr Trail for hikers to return down from the Manitou Incline. The first phase will cost $46,500, most to be paid by friends groups.

That phase will lie on property secured through the exchange, though land swap opponents note a separate land swap involving The Broadmoor and the Forest Service would have had the effect of giving the city access to that land anyway.

The second phase, which will span a portion of city property before entering Pike National Forest to reach the top of the Incline, requires a federal environmental impact study.

• Bear Creek parcel. The city has spent $40,500 on hazardous-materials abatement and demolition of an old house. Dietemeyer notes the city agreed to work with El Paso County, which owns Bear Creek Regional Park immediately west of the 8.5-acre parcel. “That process has not started nor are there any immediate plans to initiate a master plan update to the park,” he says. “For the time being the parcel serves as open space... .”

In 2016, when city parks officials urged Council to support offloading Strawberry Fields, they argued the city lacked money to remove junk and graffiti, mitigate for fire risk, build trails and the like.

But the city has spent or plans to spend at least $1.4 million, not including amounts paid by others, to bring all the projects stemming from the exchange to fruition.

Dietemeyer makes a distinction, however, saying, “The implementation comes from funding for new capital and not maintenance. Capital funding can further be maximized by using that cash as grant match for new development. Maintenance funding has been and continues to be more challenging to secure and is limited.”

click to enlarge The meadow in Strawberry Fields will one day host a picnic pavilion used by The Broadmoor’s guests. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • The meadow in Strawberry Fields will one day host a picnic pavilion used by The Broadmoor’s guests.

Kent Obee, who became Save Cheyenne’s leader when Skorman stepped down after being elected to Council, says the city incorrectly links North Cheyenne Cañon projects to the land swap.

“None of them have a thing to do with the land exchange,” he says.

In fact, the passage of time hasn’t eased some citizens’ anger about the exchange, which they believe required a vote of the people, since Strawberry Fields was acquired by the city after voters approved acquisition in 1885.

Save Cheyenne notes at least 40 cities and towns in Colorado have protections from sale or trade of park land embedded in their city charters, while others rely on a state statute that provides for elections to dispose of park land in local jurisdictions. (The City’s Trails, Open Space and Parks measure, approved by voters in April 1997, contains a prohibition on disposal without voter approval.)

Judith Rice-Jones, a long-time parks advocate and member of the League of Women Voters, says in an interview when she asked an Omaha, Nebraska, official about whether that city prohibits sale of park land, he told her, “Why would we need a regulation against trading parks? What’s out of the question is, that anyone would even think of trading or selling park land.”

Save Cheyenne’s arguments were lost on District Judge Michael McHenry and the Colorado Court of Appeals. The state Supreme Court later refused to hear the group’s appeal.

Obee is critical of Strawberry Fields trails built by the resort, though he admits the property is getting used now more than ever. “The trails The Broadmoor put in are really designed for the horse riding operation,” he says. “I think they’re perfectly nice, the nicest trails that Broadmoor money can buy.”

But once horses plod on the trails regularly, Obee wonders how much foot and bicycle traffic will be curtailed.

“The beautiful meadow — that will someday be off-limits to everybody,” he says. “The horse stable will go in at some point, and they’ll have strings of horses on those beautiful trails. The trails have clearly been built for horses.”

He also takes aim at the Bear Creek property. “Except for tearing down the derelict building, it’s totally untouched,” he says. “There’s been absolutely no development.”

The incline, he says, has been closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing. “I don’t know how they’ll reopen without expanding parking,” he says.

As for Mount Muscoco, Obee calls the property marginal in terms of being a valuable part of the city’s open space holdings. He says he hiked the property twice last year and saw no evidence of any changes the city has made to trails or anything else. He also repeated the concern he voiced in 2016.

“It is not something that somebody does casually,” he says. “It is difficult. It’s not a two- to three-hour [hike]; it’s an all-day commitment.”

Kathy Meinig, a staunch opponent of the swap, says the true impact of the trade has yet to be realized.

“I don’t think the public recognizes the loss of Strawberry, and they won’t until the stable is built,” she says. “Then they’ll say the character of this area has totally changed. I just don’t think the full ramifications of that swap are clear to anybody.”

Meinig and others say the city squandered public trust with the land exchange, and has yet to fully recover that trust, although since then voters have obliged the mayor by approving his proposed stormwater fees, road tax measures and retention of excess revenue under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Those who followed the swap closely, though, came away embittered, while more casual observers likely didn’t see a downside, Meinig says. “It was a complicated swap, which is part of the reason that special groups looked at what they would get from it and not the complete picture,” she says. Those special groups included trails and cycling advocates.

Save Cheyenne supporter Donna Strom says the handling of the land swap engendered suspicion in some citizens. “But I also believe because of the huge influx of people moving to Colorado Springs, it’s watered down by the increase of population,” she says. “A lot of people haven’t heard of Strawberry. But for the people involved, it was a forever thing.”

Even for someone who got married at The Broadmoor and whose kids worked there, Strom feels lingering resentment at the city’s deference to the hotel, not only in the land swap but other issues that arise in which she says citizens’ sentiments are brushed aside.

Skorman sharply criticized the city’s land swap process as incomplete and lacking information but now says it taught the city a thing or two. He says Strawberry Fields has become something of a battle cry.

“I can’t tell you how many times we mention Strawberry Fields from the dais,” he says. “I think the city has gotten much more diligent and certainly more transparent. Let’s be very careful how we move forward in terms of these kinds of processes, especially land purchases and trades. Council and the mayor are much more sensitive to these sorts of issues than they were in the past.

“Whenever something has come up since that has the possibility of a land swap or conveyance of park land,” he adds, “it’s gone through a lot more process, because people are afraid of what happened with Strawberry Fields. Since I’ve been on Council, I haven’t seen any thing that concerned me.”

In fact, the land exchange helped trigger a revision to the city’s real estate procedures, says Councilor Don Knight, who had a hand in that effort. Those changes include the city obtaining its own appraisal on every land transaction, whether it’s the buyer or seller, rather than trusting a party on the other side of the deal, and forwarding appraisals to Council much earlier in the process. Knight says by the time Council saw the Strawberry Fields land swap appraisals, the deal was “pretty much set in concrete.”

While Council has yet to officially adopt those revisions, he says, they’ve already been put into practice. 

But some doubt the sincerity of the city’s effort to engage the public.

“I think on paper their public process looks good. They can say this many people participated, and this many people voted for this,” says Meinig. “But in reality they’ve made up their mind. They offer only a limited number [of options] to choose from, and they do what they wanted to do in the first place.”

For two decision-makers, none of what’s happened in the last four years makes them second-guess their dissenting votes.

“I stand by my vote to oppose the exchange of Strawberry Fields,” City Councilor Jill Gaebler says via email. “I have not been out to the property so I don’t know what’s been accomplished on the land. My opposition continues to be ... that the City should not sell away its open space, as land sold is forever lost, and it’s irreplaceable. This land is also somewhat urban and easily accessed by residents, which makes it more valuable and important to the City’s future.”

Councilor Bill Murray, too, doesn’t shy from his vote. “Was/is this a one off or should we be concerned with future sales/trades/exchanges of parkland. Answer is simply yes,” Murray says via email, adding he supports requiring voter approval of land sales and exchanges, a measure that’s been in the pipeline more than a year.

click to enlarge A stable will be built in an open area near Mesa Avenue. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • A stable will be built in an open area near Mesa Avenue.

Save Cheyenne’s legal defeat in trying to overturn the exchange inspired a new strategy. In January 2019, the group asked Council to refer its proposed Protect Our Parks (POPs) measure to the April 2019 city ballot. The measure would require voter approval for conveyance of park land.

Council refused but created a working group to frame a measure. For four months, Save Cheyenne met with representatives from city parks, Council, the Parks Advisory Board, the mayor’s office, the League of Women Voters, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Trails and Open Space Coalition and Palmer Land Trust.

Just as the measure appeared ripe for the ballot a year ago, newly elected Councilor Wayne Williams sprung a new idea — to require a 6-3 Council majority for disposal of park land, but no voter approval.

After protracted back-and-forth, neither measure was referred to the ballot. The POPs version fell short by one vote when Gaebler was absent in August due to a long-planned vacation.

Now, Save Cheyenne and the city have come to terms with a new measure, which would require a 6-3 Council majority to convey parkland prior to the question going before voters, who would have the ultimate say.

Advocates, like Obee, are confident a majority of Council members will elect to give voters a shot to change the city’s charter. Foremost among them is Skorman. Though he says his pivotal issues when he ran for office included parks funding, retiring the downtown coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant and rapid response to wildfire, he admits he was swept into office on the coattails of the Strawberry Fields issue.

“I think there were people enthusiastically supporting me because of it,” he says. “With Jill [Gaebler], it was the same thing — they felt she stuck her neck out and they wanted to support her.”

Gaebler, Murray and then-Councilor Helen Collins cast “no” votes on the land exchange in May 2016. Thereafter, the business community supported candidates who challenged Gaebler, Skorman and Collins in the 2017 election. (Newcomer Yolanda Avila, elected to Collins’ seat, was not the business community’s choice.)

Expected to join Skorman, Gaebler and Murray in supporting the ballot measure are Tom Strand and Avila. Those likely to oppose it are David Geislinger, Andy Pico and Williams; Councilor Don Knight has remained mum so far.

Skorman notes the measure has a better chance for referral if the city has other issues bound for the November ballot, for which it would share El Paso County’s election costs. Those  measures include a request to retain $1.9 million in excess 2019 revenue under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a possible request to lift the TABOR cap for several years due to revenue declines caused by the pandemic, and a measure to legalize recreational marijuana in the city (see p. 7).

click to enlarge This map, included in a land exchange proposal in January 2016, came with a note from the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department, which called the proposed swap “an exciting opportunity.” - COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • Courtesy City of Colorado Springs
  • This map, included in a land exchange proposal in January 2016, came with a note from the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department, which called the proposed swap “an exciting opportunity.”

In retrospect, Skorman wishes the city still owned Strawberry Fields, but he’s complimentary to its new owner.

“I am impressed with how well The Broadmoor put together the trail system and recreational opportunities there,” he says. “It’s something I prefer the city would have done itself. I still am worried about the pavilion venue. It’s a lot of in-and-out in a crowded canyon, a lot of bus trips, noise and smells. And I still have concerns about horseback riding [through the open space].”

He’s also concerned that other land transactions could be waiting in the wings. “There’s some talk about selling off portions of the golf courses,” he says. “Valley Hi is struggling to keep it going financially.” (Patty Jewett Golf Course, however, is protected with a deed restriction and cannot be transferred.)

Then there’s the possibility a land exchange could arise on the city’s east and northeast side where Jimmy Camp Creek Park lies amid land owned by the region’s largest developer, Nor’wood Development Group.

For now, though, Save Cheyenne is focused on getting its measure to voters, who they hope share their sentiment regarding preservation of public lands.

“If these things slip away,” Obee says, “they’re gone forever.” 

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