(Editor’s Note: This article originally identified Friends of Cheyenne Cañon as the group pursing legal action to block the land exchange. It’s now been corrected.)
By Amy Gillentine Sweet and John Hazlehurst
Some groups opposing the land swap with The Broadmoor aren’t waiting for Colorado Springs City Council to decide the fate of 184 acres of park land known as Strawberry Fields. They’re taking action now to attempt to block the land exchange with The Broadmoor hotel.
The group hired local attorney Bill Louis to represent them. He filed an appeal this week of the decision by the city’s Parks Advisory Board to recommend Council approve the deal.
“I get the feeling that this isn’t done often,” Louis said, “appealing a parks board decision. But it is in the charter and we believe their decision ignored several issues.”
It’s not clear if City Council considers the appeal or if it must first go to the City Planning Commission, Louis said.
“We don’t know yet how they’ll address it,” he said. “We’re waiting to hear.”
The Broadmoor proposed trading land it owns in Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs and El Paso County for 184 acres of city park land. The luxury hotel wants to build a riding stable and picnic pavilion on 8.5 acres of the land. Since the earliest announcement, opposition has been vocal from the Friends of Cheyenne Cañon group and neighbors living near the open space.
Despite several public meetings, the group hasn’t changed its mind — and now they’re taking legal action.
Earlier this week, the group filed a lawsuit in the Fourth Judicial District asking the city to release the land appraisal details for Strawberry Fields under the Colorado Open Records Act.
“We believe the appraisal is far below what the land is worth and far below what The Broadmoor is offering,” Louis said.
And if both steps fail to stop City Council approval, then Louis said there could be a lawsuit to block it.
Louis said the group believes the zoning is wrong for the type of activity that The Broadmoor wants to do there.
“PK [public parks] is the wrong zoning for a for-profit commercial activity, referring to the exclusive picnic and pavilion area and the boutique equestrian center planned for 8.5 acres of Strawberry Fields,” he said. “We also think that Strawberry Fields was purchased by a vote of the people in 1885, specifically to acquire it as a public park.”
Colorado Springs became a home-rule city in 1909 and the city took ownership of land acquired before then under the Public Trust doctrine — allowing the city to hold the land in trust for public use, Louis said. It should only be given to The Broadmoor after a public vote, he said.
Former County Commissioner Jim Bensberg, a Cheyenne Cañon resident who firmly opposes the swap, agrees.
“Just because you can legally sell the property without a vote doesn’t mean that you should do it,” he said.
And the real estate appraisal value of $1.4 million is simply wrong, Louis believes.
“They are much greater than [the land] The Broadmoor proposes to give to the city,” he said.
Bringing it to a vote
Former councilor and longtime parks advocate Richard Skorman supports putting the question to a vote.
“I would want to give the voters an opportunity to weigh in and a have a full and free process,” he said, “and if the public decides it’s a good deal, so be it.”
Skorman suggested that such a vote should be deferred until the regularly scheduled city elections in April 2017.
“Nobody wants to put any more burdens on the general fund,” he said, noting that the issue could be referred in April at no cost to the city.
And there might be another parks-related measure on the ballot as well.
Pointing out that the city’s park system has been chronically underfunded for years, Skorman wondered whether the issues surrounding the land swap might help build support for dedicated parks funding.
“When we were building support for TOPS (the 1997 voter-approved parks, trails and open space initiative) there was the Houck Estate, the Stratton property, Red Rocks Canyon and Section 16, all threatened,” he recalled. “We lost Houck, but we built public awareness, passed TOPS and saved the others.
“But then I helped create another problem when I was on Council,” he continued. “We voted to create 37 new neighborhood parks. Then water rates went up as we built SDS [the Southern Delivery System], the recession hit and park budgets were really stressed.”
Absent a rallying point, the travails of the department didn’t attract much attention, even as budgets were cut and funding shrank dramatically.
“Regardless of what side you’re on,” Skorman continued, “I think Strawberry Fields will raise public consciousness of our parks and their problems. Why do people live here? I think that we’re united — conservative or liberal — over outdoor recreation. We have a lot of park land per capita, but we share it with 6 million annual visitors. District council seats will also be on the April ballot, so candidates will have to take a position.”
Asked if funding would be in the form of a new sales tax, Skorman said the proponents hadn’t made a decision.
“I’m sure we’ll be considering every option,” he said “We’re just starting the discussion.”