Councilman says landowners nervous after seeing Colorado Springs' City for Champions proposals

January 14, 2014 Updated: January 14, 2014 at 7:17 am
photo - An updated City for Champions rendering shows the new 10,000-seat Colorado Sports and Event Center toward the rear left, a 3,000-seat indoor facility to the right and an U.S. Olympic museum and plaza in the center. (Courtesy City for Champions)
An updated City for Champions rendering shows the new 10,000-seat Colorado Sports and Event Center toward the rear left, a 3,000-seat indoor facility to the right and an U.S. Olympic museum and plaza in the center. (Courtesy City for Champions) 

Colorado Springs City Councilman Joel Miller insists that his proposal to limit the city's ability to take private property for public use is not an attempt to block the City for Champions projects.

However, he said that property owners in southwest downtown have seen the City for Champions renderings of a downtown stadium, parking structure and U.S. Olympic museum drawn right over their property.

"They are nervous and justifiably so," said Miller, who was gauging his colleagues' interest in such an ordinance during a City Council work session Monday.

"This ordinance would strengthen the rights of Colorado Springs citizens against the taking of their private property," he said.

His idea would limit the city's power to take private property to "traditional public purposes" - like to build streets or highways - and the city could not take property for private economic development or a combination of public and private economic development.

"It is a reaffirmation of property rights and the sacrosanct place in our history," Miller said. "If you are going to invest in a business, you will be less likely to invest in an area where government will come up with an idea to use your land they think is more beneficial."

In December, the state Economic Development Commission awarded the city an estimated $120.5 million over 30 years to help finance the City for Champions - four tourism projects that include a downtown stadium, a U.S. Olympic museum, an Air Force Academy visitors center and a sports medicine facility at UCCS.

The stadium and museum would be built in southwest downtown, a mostly light industrial area the City Council declared an urban renewal site in 2001. In addition, a 1,500-space parking garage, a pedestrian bridge and other improvements would be part of the downtown projects.

When the city declared the southwest downtown area an urban renewal site, condemnation was controversial and the council imposed several conditions to make it difficult to take private property. Only the City Council can amend the urban renewal plan.

That means protections are already in place, said council member Jill Gaebler, who questioned the need for such an ordinance. She added that the Regional Tourism Act, the state law created so cities could qualify for state sales tax rebates for tourism projects, does not allow the use of eminent domain.

She also worries that such an ordinance would tie the city's hands in cases when the city would want to take blighted property for development.

In the past six years the city has used its power to take private property sparingly, such as for the Southern Delivery System project - a 53-mile pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs. Council member Jan Martin said she can recall only one other time in those years that the city took private property. That case involved the Woodmen Road project, and the city tried to negotiate with the landowner for more than a year, she said.

"We take each deal on its own," Martin said. "We don't know what options will come to the city in the future. To use this to restrict future development - I don't support it."

Miller said past councils may have been careful about using power to take private property but there are no guarantees that future councils will feel the same way.

"It hasn't been an issue, but it does not mean it won't be," he said.

A majority of the council gave Miller an affirmative nod to pursue the ordinance. Miller did not say when he would bring it back for a vote.

But council member Merv Bennett warned that going down this path could be dangerous and have unintended consequences.

"There is a whole world of things that could happen," he said. "We can't legislate everything that could happen. When we start doing that, we have a potential to start stepping on other rights."

In other business:

- Police Chief Pete Carey asked the council to ban pot from all 139 city buildings. The council also is considering an ordinance to ban pot from the Colorado Springs Airport. Interim airport director Dan Gallagher already made a rule against it, which went into effect Jan. 10.

Although it is legal to possess up to one ounce of pot in Colorado for adults 21 and older, it is still considered illegal under federal law, Gallagher said, and it cannot be taken on commercial aircraft.

The Transportation Security Administration, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security agency that screens airline passengers and baggage for weapons and other contraband, does not search for drugs, but if TSA agents found pot in checked luggage they would turn it over to Colorado Springs Police. If someone gets the pot on the aircraft, they could face a fine up to $2,500 and 189 days in jail, Carey said.

Some council members think those penalties are too high and will consider a tiered penalty system. The issue is expected to come back to the next council work session Jan. 27.

- The council will have a special meeting at 11 a.m. Tuesday to discuss the firing of its legislative analyst, George Culpepper. The meeting was scheduled for Monday but was postponed.

The council hired Culpepper in December to assist with research for potential city policy. Culpepper, who earned $23.26 per hour, was researching marijuana issues at the Colorado Springs Airport at the direction of the council in preparation of a possible city ordinance that bans marijuana from the airport and details penalties. Mayor Steve Bach fired Culpepper on Jan. 9. The reason for the firing has not been made public.

Culpepper had signed a notice of intent to ask council to discuss his firing in public Monday. The council was seated and ready to begin, but Culpepper huddled outside council chambers with a member of the city attorney's office and the city's Human Resource director, Mike Sullivan.

If Culpepper does not request that Tuesday's meeting to discuss his employment be held in open, council members will retreat behind closed doors.

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