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July 17, 2019 News » Cover Story

Voters not likely to be consulted on future parkland swaps or sales 

Our green new deal

click to enlarge Garden of the Gods’ Balanced Rock. - TRICIA DANIEL / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Tricia Daniel / Shutterstock.com
  • Garden of the Gods’ Balanced Rock.

Hundreds of people packed City Council chambers, holding cards saying, “Just Vote No. Strawberry Fields Forever.”

They came to watch their elected representatives, the Colorado Springs City Council, take action on one of the most explosive and divisive issues in recent memory: the trade of the city’s beloved 189 acres of open space adjacent to North Cheyenne Cañon to The Broadmoor hotel.

Dubbed Strawberry Fields, the property had been ensconced in the city’s stable of parks since voters approved spending $5,175 to buy the property and another 450 acres in the canyon. That happened in 1885, more than 130 years ago.

But on this day, at the behest of Mayor John Suthers, the Council would vote to hand over the breathtaking meadow and rocky outcroppings to a resort owned by one of the richest men in America, Philip Anschutz.

Despite opponents organizing a new nonprofit, Save Cheyenne, and having amassed more than 5,000 signatures on petitions protesting the trade, Council voted 6-to-3 to approve it.

That was May 24, 2016.

click to enlarge Opponents line up in May 2016 near The Broadmoor. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Opponents line up in May 2016 near The Broadmoor.

After Save Cheyenne’s citizens-funded legal dispute ran aground in 2018, supporters regrouped. Now, they want systemic change. They want voters to get a crack at forcing the city to seek voter approval before transferring parkland to private interests.

But Save Cheyenne’s proposed ballot measure, Protect Our Parks, has encountered a chilly reception from the Parks Advisory Board and Council, which is set to discuss the issue on July 22 and to decide Aug. 13 whether to refer it to voters in November.

They note that even the city’s founding father, Gen. William Jackson Palmer, didn’t trust the City Council more than a century ago. Palmer specified that an independent board, not Council, oversee his generous gifts of parkland. (More on that later.)

It’s been a long haul for Save Cheyenne, and not without hurdles, the latest of which came from Council newcomer Wayne Williams. He sprung the idea of providing parks protection from swaps by allowing Council to retain authority for trades and sales but requiring either six or seven “yes” votes on any such exchanges.

Considering that’s the action recommended to Council by the Parks Advisory Board on July 11, it will surprise no one now if Council embraces Williams’ idea, which came out of nowhere after a widely diverse Protect Our Parks committee met for five months with city officials to arrive at acceptable ballot measure wording to give voters their say.

Save Cheyenne still holds out hope its measure will be referred by Council, but a more likely pathway will come via initiative petition signatures, and probably not until the April 2021 city election, “if the will and energy are still out there,” says Save Cheyenne member Kent Obee.

Colorado Springs bore the moniker City of Parks in its early years, and though that handle later changed to City of Sunshine and, today, Olympic City USA, the parks label remains apt.

The city boasts more than 120 neighborhood parks, nine larger community parks, seven regional parks, a dozen “mini parks” and five special-purpose parks, totaling roughly 9,000 acres and open spaces that span nearly as much land, says Parks Director Karen Palus.

The city’s parks legacy dates to Palmer, who shaped three downtown parks — Acacia, Alamo and Antlers — as part of the city’s original plat in 1871. (See sidebar on p. 22.)

In 1907, Palmer generously gifted the city 1,500 acres of parkland now labeled Palmer Park, Monument Valley Park and North Cheyenne Cañon Park. At the time, a New York Times front-page story on May 8, 1907, valued the donation at $1.5 million, or $40.8 million in today’s dollars.

“His one condition for the gift of the parkland was he wanted an independent parks commission not under the city,” says Judith Rice-Jones, a local historian and member of the League of Women Voters, which supports POPs. “Often politicians make decisions with a short-term view, whereas citizens take the long-term view.”

click to enlarge Residents show opposition signs at a 2017 planning meeting. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Residents show opposition signs at a 2017 planning meeting.

Oversight changed in 1948 when voters approved creating a Parks Department and the Parks Advisory Board and placing them under the aegis of City Council. The change grew from controversy over citizens’ desire to convert Memorial Park, then an area used for tent camping, into a regular park, Rice-Jones says.

Almost a quarter-century later, in 1971, citizens had to step in when the city violated Palmer’s deed restriction that mandated the donated land remain parkland forever. The city transgressed by proposing Monument Valley land be ceded for an extension of Fontanero Street westward to Interstate 25.

The Old North End, Springs Area Beautiful Association and the League of Women Voters, led by president Mary Kyer, sued the city, arguing the city, as trustee of the parkland, cannot violate the deed by taking any action “which would cause loss of or diminished use of the park lands, solely as parks.”

In a subsequent filing, the city bagged its Fontanero Street road plan and stipulated it wouldn’t “engage in any activities which will result in sale, disposition of, loss of or diminished use of said park lands solely as parks.” Save Cheyenne cited the Kyer case in its unsuccessful lawsuit over Strawberry Fields.

Then, in the early 1990s, Rice-Jones says, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center sought a portion of Monument Valley Park for an exit road from a planned parking garage. “We gave them the [Kyer] judgment, and they backed down from that,” she says.

In a similar move, the city at one time considered selling White House Ranch, now called Rock Ledge Ranch, southeast of Garden of the Gods. “The citizens came forward and said ‘no’ and so the city said, ‘We’ll turn it into what it is now,’” Rice-Jones says, referring to the living history ranch that sponsors programs exhibiting pioneer life.

“My point being, as Palmer recognized, lots of times the things that appear to be politically expedient the citizens wouldn’t be as influenced by,” she says. “It’s the citizens looking to protect the parks, not the administration. The League has made parks an issue because we consider parks part of the identity of the city.”

POPs proponents note that while the Palmer deeds shield that land from a sale or trade, other city park land enjoys no such protection.

For example, the city added 28 parcels to the core gift of Garden of the Gods Park, deeded to the city by the Perkins family in 1905 and 1909. One of those additions is Balanced Rock. All of the add-ons could be up for grabs should the administration and Council deem them disposable to achieve a purpose beneficial to the city as a whole.

In fact, some Garden of the Gods property was sacrificed several years ago when 30th Street was realigned to accommodate expansion of parking lots and other features of the Garden’s Visitors Center. Currently, the city is working a deal with the Trading Post’s owner, which would provide the city with several acres of additional open space in exchange for a small tract enabling a parking lot to be expanded.

After losing the court case, Save Cheyenne asked Council in January to refer a Protect Our Parks measure to the April 2019 city ballot. But City Attorney Wynetta Massey countered with a five-page legal opinion saying disposal of parkland is an administrative function of the mayor, Parks Department and Council. She also took issue with its wording, asserting it lacked a clear definition for the word “transferred” or a precise outline of what’s included in “city parks.”

click to enlarge One area of North Cheyenne Cañon Park. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • One area of North Cheyenne Cañon Park.

Obee, with Save Cheyenne, saw the opinion as a roadblock, but then Council, including President Richard Skorman, suggested a committee be formed to hammer out a ballot measure for the November 2019 election that both the nonprofit group and the city could live with.

The committee included representatives from Save Cheyenne, Sierra Club, League of Women Voters, Aiken Audubon Society, Trails and Open Space Coalition, Palmer Land Trust (which holds a conservation easement for Strawberry Fields on behalf of The Broadmoor), Parks Advisory Board, City Council (Skorman and Councilor Bill Murray) and numerous staffers, including Parks Director Palus and Mayor’s Chief of Staff Jeff Greene.

After seven meetings spanning five months, the group came to terms on most issues. (Protection for open space exists for all properties acquired using the Trails, Open Space and Parks tax approved in 1997 and 2017.)

The committee members agreed that:

Major parkland transfers would require voter approval.

• Parks listed in the Parks Department’s 2014 master plan and those added in future years would comprise the parks subject to protection by the ballot measure.

• An election would not be necessary for transactions involving eminent domain, certain easements for utilities, and land not yet developed as a park acquired through the city’s Park Land Ordinance that requires developers to set aside property for parks.

• Exchanges or sales involving two acres or 5 percent of parkland, whichever is less, wouldn’t require a vote of the people.

Save Cheyenne members argue that nearly all cities of significant size in Colorado have adopted a similar measure to Protect Our Parks, including most major cities on the Front Range — Denver, Aurora, Lakewood, Boulder, Greeley, Parker, Castle Rock. But over the past several decades, only one or two elections have taken place regarding a land sale or swap.

That argument hasn’t gotten much traction with Council, although city officials themselves relied on a similar argument in persuading voters in 2017 to support a stormwater fee. Most Colorado cities have a fee or tax to fund stormwater, they noted.

Skorman, who rode into office in 2017 following his leadership of the Save Cheyenne opposition to the Strawberry Fields exchange (he resigned from Save Cheyenne upon taking city office), worries that elected officials don’t take the long view.

He notes that public ownership of Section 16 near Manitou Springs was jeopardized when El Paso County commissioners entertained an acquisition proposal from a developer. The property ultimately was secured by public ownership.

Likewise, in 2008, Williams, while serving as a county commissioner, proposed selling some of the county’s parkland to close a nearly $10 million budget gap. The county went so far as to estimate the county could capture $600,000 by selling part of Fox Run Regional Park and $14 million by selling all of Bear Creek Regional Park, according to news reports. Commissioners later abandoned that idea, but Skorman wonders if budget pressure could lead to a similar dilemma for the city.

“Down the road, during a bad economy, maybe we’ll ask if we should sell some part of Garden of the Gods to a zip-line company,” Skorman says.

The POPs ballot measure, he says, is an “extra level of assurance” that the city will preserve its parks.

Even if local residents had voted to trade away Strawberry Fields, he says, it should have gone to a vote so that people could understand what they were giving up, or gaining. The exchange, in turn, gave the city about 400 acres of Broadmoor-owned wilderness property, trail easements and a nine-acre tract of vacant land.

“Those kinds of discussions are good,” Skorman says. “I don’t distrust this council to make a bad decision, but I’ve seen councils in the past that I would distrust. You just can’t trust elected officials to always make the right decisions, speaking as one.”

Save Cheyenne’s arguments don’t resonate with Suthers and some Council members.

At a May 28 meeting with Council, the mayor said the Protect Our Parks ballot measure, if passed, would tie the hands of the city on exchanges of parkland that might be in the best interest of the entire city. He also expressed disdain for the notion that “you guys can’t be trusted to decide what’s in the interest of the city.”

Suthers also complained that elections are expensive, costing $300,000 to $500,000. But Save Cheyenne suggests that any election for parkland exchanges or sales approvals be held in coordination with the biennial county election, or be forwarded to the city’s April elections in odd years.

But that, too, is a problem, Suthers says.

“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. “He wants an acre, and he’s going to give us 400 acres, and we’re going to say, ‘Sorry, we have to take it to a vote [of the people].’”

Although parks officials say there’s no significant land transfer currently under negotiations, Suthers may see one on the not-too-distant horizon.

During the May 28 meeting, the mayor hinted that POPs could obstruct a land exchange in the Jimmy Camp Creek vicinity in east Colorado Springs. That land is adjacent to property owned by Nor’wood Development Group, the region’s biggest developer, which has indicated a desire to work a deal with the city for a portion of its 18,500-acre Banning Lewis Ranch.

“At Jimmy Camp Creek I can see some exchanges that would be very beneficial [to the city],” Suthers said.

At that same meeting, Williams introduced his super-majority idea, saying, “This is a way of doing it that addresses any clearly good deals, and provides some protection.”

All that said, Suthers appeared resigned to the idea that Protect Our Parks would make it to the ballot and be approved by voters. “I think it passes regardless,” the mayor said, “but I’d sure like to make it as palatable as possible.”

In fact, Suthers suggested he “may jump on board” to support POPs if the ballot measure was worded to suit him.

Which appears to be moot, after the Parks Advisory Board’s rejection of the POPs measure, voting on July 11 to favor Williams’ super-majority concept. The board often serves as a bellwether for Council actions, including approval of the Strawberry Fields exchange.

Such a measure, a city charter change, would be submitted to voters at the Nov. 5 election. On that same ballot, voters will decide the city’s request to keep $7 million in excess revenue and earmark it for parks, and also the city’s ask for voters to extend the city road tax, at .57 percent, a slight decrease from the .62 percent collected through 2020.

Obee and other Save Cheyenne members hoped the Parks Board would recommend Council give voters a crack at the POPs measure. But the vote was decisive to recommend Williams’ 6-3 majority measure instead.

Susan Davies, Trails and Open Space Coalition executive director, counseled that her advice to her own board, which hasn’t yet taken a position, would be, “This is a solution in search of a problem.”

She then praised the Parks Board, saying there’s good reason Colorado Springs hasn’t followed the majority of cities in Colorado to protect their parks, “because we have a board like you.”

Davies also said she lacks confidence that voters would research ballot measures on land conveyances as thoroughly as Parks Board members, and that if passed, POPs would cause the city to “miss opportunities” to trade or sell its park land.

Noting both the TOSC and Parks boards’ support of the Strawberry Fields swap, she termed the deal a “fantastic exchange that made our community better.”

Parks Board member Hank Scarangella said he didn’t want to vest parkland decisions with voters “who couldn’t find it [parkland] on a map” if a park subject to an election were located far from their own neighborhood.

And member Ron Ilgen said, “Is a vote of the people the best way to go? Where does a vote of the people stop?”

A lone Park Board member, Daniel Bowan, voiced confidence in consulting voters, rebuffing those who argued that voters wouldn’t understand parkland issues thoroughly, or wouldn’t research specific measures proposed for trade or sale.

“The argument not to trust the public to make a good decision? We do that every day,” he said.

He also said if The Broadmoor someday acquired a portion of Garden of the Gods from the city, he would feel more comfortable with that decision having been made by voters than the Parks Board and City Council.

Michael Phan also voted against the 6-3 majority motion, but for a different reason. Phan said neither measure is needed, because the city’s current process for disposing of parkland is sound. (Board member Jason Rupinski was absent.)

Obee says he is “deeply disappointed” with the Park Board’s decision, which “greases the skids for the Council vote.”

And Save Cheyenne supporter Kathy Meinig steams about devoting five months to crafting a ballot measure only to have Williams’ 11th-hour idea gain ground.

“We went into this process in good faith,” she says. “I feel that whole process was hijacked.”

Submitting the 6-3 majority measure to voters is “the worst of all worlds for us,” Obee says, noting the measure will allow Council members to claim they’ve fixed the issue without really fixing the issue.

That’s why Save Cheyenne may yet bring a measure to voters via signatures at the April 2021 election, he says.

It’s not clear where each city councilor stands, but Don Knight is a sure “yes” vote to refer Williams’ 6-3 majority measure, having said at the May 28 meeting, “I’m not in favor of going to the voters at all [on land exchanges]. I think the decision rightly rests with Council.”

Jill Gaebler, one of the three Council “no” votes on Strawberry Fields in 2016, tells the Indy via email she, too, supports Williams’ idea, though she’d be more likely to back a “super-super majority” requiring seven “yes” votes.

It was Gaebler, who, before casting one of the three “no” votes against the Strawberry Fields land exchange on May 24, 2016, quoted Gen. Palmer’s words from long ago.

“Let it not be for the present delight, nor for the present use alone,” she read, “let it be for such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, that a time is to come when men will say, ‘See, this our Fathers did for us.’”

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