Protect Our Parks measure gains new supporter but might fall short of Council majority


Only about half of Garden of the Gods is protected through a deed restriction from a sale or trade by City Council. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Only about half of Garden of the Gods is protected through a deed restriction from a sale or trade by City Council.
Councilor Jill Gaebler's switch on July 22 toward giving voters a chance to weigh in on city parkland trades and exchanges, rather than keeping that call in City Council's hands, tilts the proposed Protect Our Parks measure toward approval.

"For me it’s an issue of trust," said Gaebler, who previously didn't back the measure. "I’m moved by what Richard [Skorman, Council president] said about future Councils and having a number of [future] Council members who won’t have a respect for how important parks are. It's unacceptable that we would sell any of our parks. I think we can figure out a way to trust the voters."
But, despite her conversion, it appears POPs will fall short of a 5-4 majority needed when Council votes on August 13 on whether to refer the measure to the November ballot.

Others supporting the measure, crafted by a diverse group including city officials spanning five months, include Councilors Yolanda Avila and Bill Murray and Skorman.

But based on comments made during the July 22 work session, Councilors David Geislinger, Wayne Williams and Tom Strand want to retain Council control, such as in the case of the controversial exchange of the city-owned 189-acre Strawberry Fields to The Broadmoor hotel and resort in 2016, which gave birth to the POPs measure.

Councilors Don Knight, who has previously expressed opposition to POPs, and Andy Pico, who was absent July 22, voted for the Strawberry Fields swap and likely will support an alternate measure rather than POPs.

That measure, sprung on Council by newcomer Williams on May 28, would require a 6-3 majority of Council to transfer parkland. The Parks Advisory Board backed that measure at its July 11 meeting.

After several officials argued against POPs at the July 22 Council meeting, including Mayor John Suthers, and noted the city couldn't spend money to promote or oppose a land swap, Murray reminded them of his astonishing victory in April.

He spent a pittance campaigning — a mere 2 cents per vote — to capture another four-year term in his city-wide seat. "It's the narrative, it's the truth, the story that buys the votes," he said.

Suthers was adamant against allowing the public to decide parkland transfers.

Making an unusual appearance at a Council work session, Suthers said, "I will tell you I spend a lot of time in the community, and half the folks in Rockrimmon don’t know where Cheyenne Cañon is. This notion that the 480,000 citizens are in a better position to evaluate a proposed land transaction to approve or deny it than you are, I reject completely."

But Avila said simply, "There is something to the wisdom of the many."

She added she believes in the citizens, saying, "We do have to take it to a vote of the people."

Skorman noted a long list of parks that were nearly traded or sold over the years by officials desperate for money during hard economic times. He also noted the Trails Open Space and Parks initiative, first approved by voters in 1997 and renewed since, contains the protection that no land obtained with TOPS tax money will be sold or traded without a vote of the people. The city's other parkland, with few exceptions, don't enjoy such protection.

But Williams, who as an El Paso County commissioner in 2008 proposed selling county parks, noted that in those cases, elected officials ended up making the right decision. "So you’re entire argument is based on boards making correct decisions," he told Skorman. "I believe there are proper protections for parks."

Proponents of POPs noted most major cities in Colorado, including Denver and Aurora, have such a voter-consulting requirement to convey parkland.

On August 13, Council is likely to refer to the ballot the alternate 6-3 Council majority measure as a Charter change, a measure POPs advocate Kent Obee said would be worse than doing nothing. That's because, he said, it would give people a false sense of security that parkland was being protected.

It was a 6-3 majority that voted on May 24, 2016, to convey Strawberry Fields to The Broadmoor, which plans a horse stable and picnic pavilion on the most desirable 8 acres, placing the balance in a conservation easement for public access.


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