With so many people making use of city parkland over the past year to escape the doldrums of the pandemic, it might come as no surprise that some members of the Colorado Springs City Council are taking heat this month after approving an ordinance that allows developers to dedicate less land for it in the future.
Since the 1970s, developers in Colorado Springs have been required to dedicate 7.5 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents for new developments, but City Council voted 5-4 at a regular meeting Feb. 9 to cut that down to 5.5 acres, while almost doubling the fees developers must pay per acre if they cannot meet that requirement. The parks department then must use that money to add or enhance parkland in the same area.
While opponents of the ordinance are calling it a move to appease developers that will effectively limit available parkland in the city as its population continues to grow, supporters say it’s more complicated than that.
Councilors Wayne Williams, Jill Gaebler, Mike O’Malley, David Geislinger and Tom Strand, who voted in favor of the ordinance, argued at the meeting that the requirement change is really just an alignment with the 5.5 acres developers have, on average, dedicated in the past. They also say the previous ordinance was contrary to a U.S. Supreme Court decision from the 1990s, determining cities could not request more parkland than was being provided to citizens in other parts of a city.
“What optimally should have happened after that U.S. Supreme Court case is that we should have updated our ordinance and said, ‘OK, how much parkland are you providing to the citizens across the city?’” says Britt Haley, parks design and development manager for the city. “And whatever that number was, that’s the number that we ought to have in our ordinance, but we never updated it. Part of the reason is that it’s just hard to update this particular ordinance. People feel very strongly because they love our community and they love our parks. It’s also a really complicated subject.”
Williams said leaving the ordinance at the 7.5-acre requirement was unconstitutional and could open up the city to lawsuits, even though that hasn’t happened in the past.
Richard Skorman, Council president, was among city officials who voiced opposition to pushing the ordinance through after Council had indicated previously that they would not hold a vote until the week of Feb. 14. Skorman also noted that a major parks planning process is set to begin soon. He said that completing it would have helped to inform their decision on the ordinance. He suggested a delay on a vote for as long as six months.
“The bottom line, from my point of view, is that this is just a step in the wrong direction,” says Kent Obee, a two-time TOPS [Trails, Open Space and Parks] tax working committee member who helped promote the Protect Our Parks ballot measure that passed in November. Obee spoke with the Indy following approval of the ordinance.
“We’ve had various controversies over parks, and just sort of one of the basic truths about parks here is that our parks system has got some wonderful crown jewels, like the Garden of the Gods and things like that, but it is also chronically and grossly underfunded,” he added.
Obee believes the usual practice of providing 2 acres of parkland less than the official standard might not change under the new ordinance, effectively resulting in developers providing only 3.5 acres for parks.
“In other words, to get 2 acres worth of fee money, you actually drop your number of park land down to 3.5 acres,” he says. “A number of us you had in that meeting yesterday — and you had spokespeople from the Sierra Club, from the League of Women Voters and other organizations — a number of us who consider ourselves very sincere park advocates just felt that this was one more case where the city was caving in to a particular special interest and giving them a benefit that the city didn’t need to give them.”
Haley said the city parks department gets to decide whether a developer provides the full 5.5 acres — if that much is available — or whether the developer pays a fee for the acres that fall short of the requirement. She said developers have an interest in providing more parkland to the city because they understand that doing so makes their properties more attractive to prospective tenants.
“I think what we know is when people buy a new home, one of the chief things that they care about is whether there are parks and trails available nearby,” she says. “And what this ordinance requires is that the development provide the parkland that’s necessary so that the new residents have the same as the existing residents. So that’s what we’re trying to do here, is to make sure that we have the parkland so that we can provide those parks in the future equally across the city.”
The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that ranks the top 100 cities in the United States based on their access to public parks, places Colorado Springs at 53rd, estimating that 74 percent of Springs residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. For comparison, the national average is 55 percent. The Springs remains far behind Aurora, ranked 24th, and Denver, 22nd. Aurora boasts 11.9 acres per 1,000 residents, well above even the prior ordinance requirement of 7.5 acres in the Springs.
But Haley says it’s all about how you look at it.
“If you included the neighborhood parks, the community parks, the open spaces and the trail corridors, you’d come up with a higher number than our 5.5 or a 7.5 [acres],” she says. “When you look across our system, of all of those resources, it would be 30.2 acres per 1,000 residents here in the city of Colorado Springs, which blows Aurora out of the water.”