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Colorado Springs parks board votes to support land swap

April 14, 2016 Updated: April 15, 2016 at 3:07 pm
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photo - Signs with the Colorado Springs logo were posted at Strawberry Hill open space earlier this year.
Signs with the Colorado Springs logo were posted at Strawberry Hill open space earlier this year. 

After a marathon 10-hour meeting Thursday that punctuated three months of boisterous debate, the Colorado Springs Parks Advisory Board voted 6-3 in support of a controversial land swap between the city and The Broadmoor.

The board's recommendation now goes to the City Council, which likely will make a final decision on the swap May 11.

The most hotly disputed piece of the complex, wide-ranging proposal is the 189-acre Strawberry Hill, part of a tract that the city acquired through a vote of the people in 1885.

That site has been neglected ever since, a majority of board members said. But The Broadmoor has promised to perform trash and graffiti cleanup, mitigate fire danger and ameliorate erosion if it takes over the land. It also would trade 371 park acres and 115 acres of trail easements to the city in exchange for Strawberry Hill and a half-acre lot at the foot of the Cog Railway in Manitou Springs.

 

The board majority and many pro-swap speakers deemed that to be a winning proposition for the city's underfunded Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services, which would be hard-pressed to clean up the site or to procure the other pieces of land The Broadmoor would provide in the deal.

"Right now we have 152 football fields (size) of danger," neighborhood resident John Murphy testified. "I live at the top of it, and that's where fire's going to come if there is a fire. It's a clogged-up, somewhat diseased forest. If the citizens of 1885 would have known what their park has turned into, at the hands of 65 different city councils - it doesn't have one sign, one picnic table, and a fence at the bottom implying it's private property.

"Let The Broadmoor take their 3-1/2 acres, give us the balance and we've got a great deal."

During the daylong debate, board members Scot Hume and Charles Castle made motions essentially calling for a six-month delay of further action.

"The public trusts us to not be quick to pull the trigger," Castle said. "What I do know is, this public has come to us and said, 'Let's give it more time.'"

That's exactly what open-space activists Kent Obee and Richard Skorman requested in their presentation, reminding listeners that the land belongs to the people, not to city officials.

Hume also made a motion to recommend that the city put the property's disposition to a vote of the people in 2017.

Board chairwoman Jackie Hilaire pointed out that an election costs $50,000.

"That's $350,000," called out city Chief of Staff Jeff Greene from the audience.

Like both earlier motions, that one failed on a 6-3 vote, too, with member Alex Johnson backing the minority.

Greene, the last person to testify to the board, stressed the need to separate emotion from facts.

"I do have great concern about testimony presented today by Councilman Bill Murray," he said, adding that Council President Merv Bennett had told him to make clear that Murray doesn't represent the council or the city.

Murray, an at-large councilman, had urged the board to oppose the trade.

"A public-private partnership? No it isn't. It's ownership. It's absolute control of Strawberry Hill," Murray said. "... It is 30 times what (land-trade size) we've ever done before. So we should take 30 times as much time to review it."

He questioned how The Broadmoor would oversee the land. "The Broadmoor's a good steward? Which one? The Broadmoor is made up of a whole bunch of conglomerates."

"The Broadmoor's in a private trust. It's separate from all other Anschutz entities," countered Broadmoor President and CEO Jack Damioli, who was also there to testify in support of the deal.

Philip Anschutz also owns Clarity Media, which publishes The Gazette.

The Broadmoor plans to erect an open picnic pavilion and small horse stable on about 3.5 acres of the 8-acre development parcel it would get on the 189-acre site.

The rest of the property would remain open to the public.

"No liquor will be served?" asked Linda Hodges, who has served on both the city's Trails, Open Space and Parks program and the volunteer Trails and Open Space Coalition.

"That's what the deed says," Damioli replied.

"What's the worst thing that's going to happen if this deal doesn't go through?" asked Gary Casimir, another speaker testifying. "... If The Broadmoor doesn't get it, is Jack going to put a set of wheels under it and move it down the road? We're stuck with The Broadmoor, and The Broadmoor is stuck with us."

Casimir questioned what economic benefit The Broadmoor brings to the community, and Damioli noted that the five-star hotel employs 2,800 people and would pay taxes on Strawberry Hill, if acquired, and fees to the Palmer Land Trust for overseeing a conservation easement on the land.

On the other side, because The Broadmoor would give the city 296.5 more acres than it would receive, that land will be categorized as a donation and would be tax-exempt under the trade.

News of the tax exemption, a pending review of the much-criticized appraisals on all the properties and verification of the 1855 election were among new facts cited by swap opponents urging a delay. On Monday, the City Attorney's Office advised the City Council that no records of the historic election existed. It later corrected that error.

"Isn't it damning we found out there really was an election only one day ago?" Johnson asked. "We have a responsibility to answer these questions that have been brought up."

But board vice chairman Gary Feffer said, "A lot of things have to happen between us approving that to where a deal truly closes and gets done. There's an unbelievable amount of due diligence between now and then. There's always checks and balances, including going to the City Council."

Chairwoman Hilaire agreed. "We're hearing the same voices over and over again," she said. "This has been a very neglected piece of property for 130 years. If this goes through, we all get a public park."

Joining them in voting to support the trade were board members Mina Liebert, Hank Scarangella, Ron Ilgen and Jason Rupinski.

The City Council will receive another briefing on the land exchange at its work session at 1 p.m. April 25 in City Hall, 107 N. Nevada Ave., before voting May 11.

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