Colorado Springs voters could see dueling ballot questions over the city's parks — one asking voters to require an election to approve potential sales or swaps of park land and another requiring a supermajority of council to approve land deals involving parks.
The differing questions reflect a disagreement among Colorado Springs City Council members over what protection of park land is necessary.
The resident-led Protect our Parks coalition — which formed in opposition to the city's 2016 transfer of the Strawberry Fields open space to the The Broadmoor in a land swap — is backing the stronger measure that would require voter approval of sales, swaps or transfers of city park land. The council informally agreed to put the advocate-backed question on ballot in June.
Councilman Wayne Williams proposed the question requiring a supermajority of council members to approve city parkland deals instead of a simple majority of five votes and it gained enough support to move forward this week. A draft ballot question proposes requiring a six-vote majority, but Williams said he is planning to raise the bar to seven.
If voters approved both questions, the one that received the most votes would be enacted, said Marc Smith, city staff attorney.
Protect our Parks advocate Kent Obee said he was caught off guard by the second question that gained traction with council right before an official vote to put the questions on the ballot in August. He said the second question offers a lower bar of protection and could confuse voters.
"I see this as a maneuver to simply complicate things to the point where people don’t know where we are going," he said in a council meeting.
Obee and other advocates worked with the city officials on the question to require elections to transfer parkland after last year after advocates failed to get a question on the April 2019 ballot.
Williams proposed a similar question last year as well that would requiring a supermajority of council members to approve park transfers and proponents say it provides greater protection than currently exists while allowing flexibility.
"Putting together parks, putting together trails, putting together open space is a puzzle," said Mayor John Suthers, who backs the supermajority proposal. "The city needs flexibility to put those puzzles together."
The city has been on a path of adding parks, trails and open space in recent years in the last five years and Suthers expects that trend to continue, he said.
If voter approval were required to transfer park land, it could slow down deals or stymie them while the city and the landowner wait for an election, Williams said.
"You risk some transactions not taking place that would be wonderful for the community," he said.
Councilwoman Jill Gaebler is likely to be the deciding vote in allowing both questions to be on the ballot by supporting both. Although she prefers that parks be protected by elections, she said requiring a supermajority vote of council would likewise strengthen protections.
"I don’t see the harm in asking the voters to make the decision," she said.
The Protect our Parks coalition is also concerned that requiring a supermajority of council to approve a park land transfer is insufficient because the city's Strawberry Fields land swap with The Broadmoor was approved by a 6-3 vote, Obee said. The city exchanged the 190-acre Strawberry Fields property abutting North Cheyenne Cañon Park in 2016 for about twice the amount of land.
"Our basic premise is that these parks belong to the citizens," Obee said. "The citizens should have a say if the bureaucrats decide to dispose of one."
The Broadmoor is owned by the Denver-based Anschutz Corp., whose Clarity Media Group owns The Gazette.
Two similar questions were headed for the ballot last year, but never made it. The proposal requiring a supermajority of council votes to transfer land was withdrawn and the question requiring voter approval did not have support to move forward because Gaebler was absent, Obee said.
"We are in a very real sense exactly where we were a year ago," he said.
The city council also informally revised the list of parks that would be protected by the ballot questions this week, removing Dorchester Park and park land along the Shooks Run trail.
City staff needs flexibility to exchange land along the trail corridor, to expand or diminish park land in certain areas to achieve the vision outlined in the city's master plan for the area, said Karen Palus, director of parks, recreation and cultural services. The master plan envisions a much more inviting and interconnected trail system that will take time to create, she said.
The Shooks Run plan could require transferring larger parcels of land, which could trigger an election for approval, if the park land remained on the protected list, she said.
The areas are frequented by homeless people and their tent communities dot the corridor.
Obee said parks advocates were not expecting to see Shooks Run properties removed from the list, but that they could accept it, if it could protect other parks from land exchanges that would not require voter approval.
Both ballot questions provide some exceptions that would not require an election or supermajority vote, such as small transfers of land of less than two acres or 5% of the total acreage of a park, whichever is less, according the draft questions. Elections and supermajority votes also would not be required for land transfers involving eminent domain, title disputes among other exceptions.