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Strawberry Hill appraisal questioned and appraiser penalized, but land swap deal with Broadmoor is unlikely to change

December 13, 2017 Updated: December 14, 2017 at 8:49 am
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photo - Colorado Springs traded more than 180 acres of open space at Strawberry Hill with The Broadmoor in exchange for 371 acres in 14 parcels last year. (Gazette file photo)
Colorado Springs traded more than 180 acres of open space at Strawberry Hill with The Broadmoor in exchange for 371 acres in 14 parcels last year. (Gazette file photo) 

Following residents' accusations that a misleading appraisal was used in a land swap between Colorado Springs and The Broadmoor, a few City Council members called Tuesday to re-examine the deal.

The city traded more than 180 acres of open space at Strawberry Hill with The Broadmoor in exchange for 371 acres in 14 parcels last year. The land already has been legally transferred and a majority of the council members still support the swap, so any effort to overturn the deal is unlikely.

Last month the Colorado Board of Real Estate Appraisers penalized the city employee responsible for Strawberry Hill's valuation, saying he lacked documentation supporting his findings, City Attorney Wynetta Massey and Council President Richard Skorman acknowledged. About a dozen residents at Tuesday's council meeting asked the group to reconsider its approval, considering that disciplinary action.

Gary Kujawski, spokesman for the state board, declined to comment on the details of that disciplinary action. But Skorman said the appraiser was ultimately ordered to pay a fine and take about 40 hours worth of classes, including coursework on comparative analysis.

Massey said the documentation - not the appraisal's legitimacy - was the only problem for the state board. She also said the swap cannot be rescinded because the city no longer legally owns the land.

Still, Skorman said he wanted to "revisit the appraisal. There has been some doubt put on it."

"I don't think it's just about the paperwork," he said. "I think that he (the appraiser) was ordered to go through classes on comparables. And because of that, I think that that's something that also reflects on the comparables put forth in that appraisal. It's just common sense."

Skorman also challenged Massey's impartiality in assessing the action taken against the appraiser, saying he prefers the opinion of "a lawyer that wasn't involved on the case."

But Skorman's own impartiality may be at issue.

Before he decided to run for the council, Skorman led the opposition against the land swap as a neighbor of the site, president of the nonprofit Save Cheyenne and the force behind two lawsuits over the swap. The first, which failed, sought to hinge the trade to a vote by city residents, since residents had voted to acquire that land in 1885. The ensuing appeal, pending in the Colorado Court of Appeals, seeks to overturn the trade.

Skorman also led many hikes twice daily through the property to show people what they could lose.

He resigned his position at Save Cheyenne as he ran for the council seat, saying he wanted to avoid a conflict of interest.

Asked about a potential conflict of interest, city spokeswoman Jamie Fabos referred to the city's code on the topic. Among other things, the code stipulates that city officials must not have financial interests conflicting with their duties or give preferential treatment to any private organizations or individuals.

Fabos said representatives of the city attorney's office declined to comment on any potential conflict of interest.

But Skorman said there is no conflict because the quality of the information the council used for the swap might have been misleading. He said he would have to recuse himself in other situations, however.

"If there's an issue around the court challenge, that's different," he said. "I probably shouldn't weigh in on that because I was on the original lawsuit."

The city's appraisal valued Strawberry Hill at $1.58 million. The parcels the city received from The Broadmoor were appraised at a total of $3.6 million.

But Skorman still takes issue with the city's appraisal, which values the Strawberry Hill plot at $8,300 an acre, far less than the property's potential value, he said.

"What if it's half a million an acre? By the way, that's what real estate goes for in that neighborhood, or more," he said.

Broadmoor Chairman Steve Bartolin directed questions about the appraisal back to city staff. "It was the city's appraisal," he said.

Bartolin did note, however, that the work was subjected to a peer review before the swap was completed.

Councilman Merv Bennett, former council president, said in order to reexamine the swap or reverse the council decision, a council majority would need to agree with Skorman.

Such is not currently the case.

"And even if we did it, it's done, the land's been transferred," Bennett said.

Council members Bill Murray and Yolanda Avila sided with Skorman on Tuesday.

"Any material misrepresentation brings back the discussion," Murray said at the council meeting.

And any groups that "can't admit a mistake was made, or go and research a mistake that was made, really shouldn't represent you," he told the audience.

But Bennett and Councilmen Dave Geislinger, Don Knight and Andy Pico said they don't want a new appraisal.

"We cannot create a precedent where decisions going forward are going to constantly be subjected to second-guessing," Geislinger said. "I would be very strongly opposed to revisiting this."

Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler and Councilman Tom Strand said they want more information before making a decision.

Strand, however, said he disagrees with Skorman's request for outside counsel, saying it's important to support Massey.

While Massey said the swap can't be rescinded because the city no longer owns the land, Kent Obee, president of Save Cheyenne, implored the group to explore other options like bowing out of his group's legal appeal. Such a move likely wouldn't end the court case.

Charles Norton, an attorney for Save Cheyenne, said alongside the city, The Broadmoor - which shares its owner with The Gazette - is listed as a defendant and an appellee in the case.

"But it would obviously have a real impact if one side withdraws," Obee said.

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