Analysis: Are all parks created equal?

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On Monday afternoon, downtown hotelier and entrepreneur Perry Sanders formally abandoned his quest to repurpose Antlers Park as the sports and events center as part of a City for Champions proposal, stating he had found “a better downtown site.”

Sanders confirmed the previous site was a last-ditch choice, brought forward because of time constraints. Unless “substantial work” on the facility is in progress by mid-December, the city will not be able to tap up to $27.7 million in state tax increment funding for the project.

The new location won’t be disclosed for weeks, but Sanders has managed to reignite a passionate community debate about parks, one that surfaced two years ago with the Strawberry Fields land exchange. The question: Should all parks be protected from sale, trade or exchange?

Strawberry Fields

In 2016, Mayor John Suthers and Colorado Springs City Council signed on to a complex land exchange with The Broadmoor hotel, trading 189.5 acres in North Cheyenne Cañon Park (called Strawberry Fields by neighbors) for a grab bag of undeveloped parcels. One of the deal’s most outspoken foes was then former City Councilor (and now council president) Richard Skorman, who said at the time that The Broadmoor is offering land “they don’t want or need” in exchange for “something they very much cherish.” Skorman joined other preservationists to form Save Cheyenne, which filed a suit against the city.

The organization contended that since city voters authorized the acquisition of the property in 1885, a new vote would be required to reverse that decision. City attorneys disagreed, arguing that the city’s “Home Rule” status enabled it to make such decisions without voter assent. The District Court dismissed the case and Save Cheyenne took it to the Court of Appeals. A decision is expected within weeks.

Antlers Park

Like Strawberry Fields, Antlers has been part of the city’s park system for more than a century. The park was described in the 1902 Annual Reports and Financial Statements to city council as consisting “of 12.32 acres, the city caring for its portion and the hotel company for its portion.”

Antlers Park is now 3.3 acres. Despite the reference to split maintenance responsibilities, Antlers Park was described as a “public park,” as distinguished from a “private amusement park.”

Yet over the years, 75 percent of the park’s original area was chipped away and used for private development.

According to an opinion by City Attorney Wynetta Massey, what’s left of Antlers Park is permanently protected from non-park uses, prohibitions stemming from the Kyer Stipulation, part of a 1971 settlement with the League of Women Voters that sought to block the city from building an expressway across Monument Valley Park. The League successfully argued the parkland couldn’t be touched.

Parks and open space supporters have long advocated for legal protection of the existing park system. In November 2016, Strawberry Fields supporters (including Skorman) floated the idea of an April 2017 city charter amendment that would have required a vote of the people for any sale, trade or transfer of parkland. A citizen-initiated measure would have required collecting approximately 15,200 petition signatures, and in any case wouldn’t have nullified the Strawberry Fields exchange, so the idea was abandoned.

Will the Skorman-led city council refer a similar charter amendment to the voters in November of this year or in April 2019? Or will parks supporters initiate a measure? Longtime open space advocate Lee Milner is all for it.

“Strawberry Fields and Antlers Park are good examples of the tragedy of the commons,” he said. “When land is owned communally, people who want to develop it look at it as free land, a way to reduce costs. That was part of TOPS (the 1997 voter-approved tax to acquire parks, trails and open space) — any land acquired couldn’t be sold without a popular vote.”

Colorado’s 101 home rule cities, including Colorado Springs, have long opposed such measures. As the Colorado Municipal League wrote in a brief supporting the Strawberry Fields exchange, “The authority to dispose of city-owned property, including park property, is critical to the ability to manage real estate portfolios for their residents based upon local needs. A decision to reverse the district court will erode home rule cities’ powers to ‘purchase, receive, hold and enjoy or sell and dispose of, real and personal property.’”

Would voters support that position? That’s debatable. Of the 133 neighborhood parks in Colorado Springs, only Acacia, Alamo Square and Antlers have a high level of protection. The other 130 are on their own — including the 11-acre Mary Kyer Park on Middle Creek Parkway, named for the League of Women Voters president who filed the 1971 lawsuit.