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'Protect Our Parks' proponents want Strawberry Fields to be part of Colorado Springs ballot initiative

November 1, 2016 Updated: November 4, 2016 at 2:38 pm
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In the proposed land exchange, the city will trade to the Broadmoor approximately 189 acres, known as the Strawberry Hill or Strawberry Field area. David Deitemeyer, a park planner with the city, walks through Strawberry Fields during a media tour on Wednesday, February 17, 2016. According to the proposal, the public will still be able to access the area for hiking and biking. In the background is Mt. Cutler. Photo by Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette

A city move Tuesday to strike previously approved deals from the Protect Our Parks initiative would foil POPS' intent to undo the controversial Strawberry Fields trade between Colorado Springs and The Broadmoor.

That was unacceptable to POPS proponents, with attorney Bill Louis saying he will file an appeal within two business days, as required.

Should that appeal fail, the POPS board will file an injunction in District Court, said proponent Richard Skorman. The POPS initiative would require a vote of the people before any city parks or open space land is sold, traded or otherwise conveyed.

As the city's Initiative Title-Setting Review Board started its hearing Tuesday, hopes of having a POPS initiative at all began to fade.

Presiding Municipal Judge HayDen William Kane II, one of the review board members, said the process of land trades is "administrative or executive in nature and not subject to the initiative process."

City Attorney Wynetta Massey said, "I have no argument that land transfers are administrative."

But, she added, the proposed charter amendment's effort to define future actions is legislative.

"I concur with the city attorney," City Clerk Sarah Johnson said, resulting in a 2-1 vote in favor of getting the initiative on the ballot.

"I would be willing to set a title" for the initiative, Massey said, as long as its authors delete the section that applies to land transactions not finalized by May 1, 2016.

That includes Strawberry Fields, a 190-acre intermountain meadow that the city traded to The Broadmoor for 371 acres, including a 208-acre access to the top of Mount Muscoco, a tract around the Manitou Incline and small easements throughout western Colorado Springs.

"Strawberry Fields is the big fish right now," Skorman said. "It's not a done deal, so we feel it should absolutely be included."

The City Council voted 6-3 on May 24 to approve the land swap, but all conditions of that trade haven't been completed, including a conservation easement that the parties would like the Palmer Land Trust to complete.

"We think this one should be protected by a vote of the people," Skorman said, just as the land's purchase by the city was approved by an 1885 vote of the people.

Massey, Johnson and Louis conferred amiably for an hour or so, cleaning up portions of the initiative that the city officials found misleading, confusing or unnecessary.

Then Massey recommended an initiative title: "Shall the City Charter be amended to require prior voter approval before the sale, trade or disposition of city park land?" Johnson and Kane approved the language, and Louis and the POPs board accepted it, too.

Another hearing of the Title-Setting Review Board likely will be scheduled for Monday, and arguments over the appeal will ensue, with each side expected to cite case law bolstering its contentions.

Meanwhile, POPS proponents will be delayed in circulating petitions to get their proposed charter amendment on the April 4 city ballot. They must have at least 15,200 valid signatures but hope to collect 20,000.

Taking their appeal to District Court could add a couple of weeks to that delay, leaving them six weeks to collect the signatures by Jan. 4, the deadline to get on the April 4 ballot.

"It does put more onus on the City Council to put this on the ballot and potentially save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars," Skorman said. "We'd rather not cause extra expense."

A special election typically costs about $300,000, Johnson has said.

But would the council that supported the land trade be likely to put the initiative on the ballot?

"The council wouldn't have to weigh in one way or the other," Skorman said. "They'd be protecting the public's right to vote on this."

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