- Pam Zubeck
- Citizens hike Strawberry Fields open space in mid-March.
It's impossible to know how negotiations commenced over the City of Colorado Springs' proposed land swap with The Broadmoor: The city refuses to release any written communications with the resort that took place prior to Dec. 29, 2015. The Independent's April 12 public records request sought all correspondence between the two parties since the genesis of the trade.
Parks Director Karen Palus has said talks began during former Mayor Steve Bach's term and continued after Mayor John Suthers took office last June. She's also said the city put Strawberry Fields open space — the most controversial piece of the swap — into play.
Now, the city says although it ordered an appraisal on Sept. 4 of the parcel it terms the "North Cheyenne Cañon Park Disposal Project," all correspondence prior to Dec. 29 is protected under Colorado Open Records Act exemptions. Those include attorney-client communications, attorney work product, draft documents that constitute work product prepared for an elected official, and the deliberative process privilege.
The 215 pages of emails the city has released to the Indy, at a charge of $205, show a close working relationship between city officials and resort personnel who shared a common cause in closing the deal.
Before the land swap was publicly unveiled, The Broadmoor previewed the city's news release and on the day it was announced, Jan. 14, exchanged at least eight emails with city officials.
Palus' take by the end of that day, as stated in an email to Broadmoor President and CEO Jack Damioli: "Word is traveling fast with lots of positive feedback!"
The proposed exchange calls for the city to give The Broadmoor the 189-acre open space and a half-acre parking lot near the Manitou Incline's base. The Broadmoor wants to use eight to nine acres in Strawberry Fields for a stable and picnic pavilion and has pledged to build trails, plant wildflowers and allow public access throughout the rest of the property.
In exchange, the city would get about 470 acres of trail easements, including easements for Barr Trail and the Incline, and rugged forest land that includes Mount Muscoco, along with 8.5 residentially zoned acres abutting El Paso County's Bear Creek Regional Park.
The city has refused to release the appraisals for the parcels, which triggered a lawsuit last week from opponents. A District Court hearing is scheduled for May 6.
Meantime, after some citizens questioned the appraised prices, which were revealed March 30, the city hastily ordered an appraisal review. The review will gauge the appraisals' credibility but won't reappraise the tracts. City staff is scheduled to brief City Council on the review May 9, and Council plans to take action on the swap on May 24.
That's not exactly the timeline The Broadmoor had in mind initially, according to the emails.
"Our intent, as you know, is to finalize approvals by the end of April, if not earlier, so late summer construction might be feasible," Les Gruen, urban planner working for The Broadmoor, wrote to Palus and Chief of Staff Jeff Greene on Dec. 29.
(Now, the city says it could take six months to a year to finalize the conservation easement on Strawberry Fields.)
Gruen went on to say Planning Director Peter Wysocki approved development of the stable and picnic facility under park zoning, meaning the plan could sidestep scrutiny by the Planning Department and, instead, be considered by the Parks Advisory Board.
"It appears that a building permit could be issued for the site even though it is not currently platted," Gruen says.
(Asked about that by the Indy, Regional Building Department Official Roger Lovell says via email, "No, a permit can not be issued before a parcel is platted." It's unclear if The Broadmoor plans to plat the land.)
The next day, Dec. 30, Wysocki wrote to Palus saying the Parks Department would need to determine whether the stables and pavilion "are consistent with the master plan for the area."
In response, Chief of Staff Greene told Wysocki, "This helps in us being able to move forward."
In a heads-up to Damioli and Broadmoor Chairman Steve Bartolin on Jan. 13, the day before the city issued a news release about the deal, Palus conveyed her "sincerest appreciation for all of your efforts to support our outstanding Park System!"
On Jan. 14, Bartolin, after reviewing the press release, cautioned Palus, "I will leave it to your judgement [sic] on the rendering of the picnic grounds. First of all, it is very tentative. My only concern is I don't want to have that become controversial in this early stage. Just saying picnicking seems adequate. If they see a structure it might cause them concern and that could be left for a later discussion."
Palus responded: "The area now just has a star so no one gets caught up in the building design!" After a meeting that day with stakeholders, including trails and cycling groups, Palus reported to Bartolin and Damioli that "everyone has been very receptive" and suggested they all meet.
The Broadmoor didn't publicly identify where the stable and picnic area would be placed within Strawberry Fields until March 30, when it revealed a vague outline of the open space meadow.
Within a week, Bartolin was frustrated by growing opposition. "There is so much misinformation going out," he wrote to Palus and Greene on Jan. 21. "Do you have any suggestions how we should address it?"
He also told them Richard Skorman, open space advocate and former vice mayor, was spearheading a presentation for the first public meeting Jan. 28. Opponents didn't formally present until March 14.
On Jan. 25, Bartolin told Palus that Springs resident Rachel Rocks was circulating a petition against the exchange.
"She is a very opinionated person and loves a cause and, mostly, the attention," Bartolin wrote, adding she was "sensationalizing" the exchange as "carnival rides, higher crime and traffic."
Four days before Councilor Keith King's March 14 town hall meeting about the exchange at Broadmoor Community Church, King wrote to Bartolin and Damioli: "After I talked to Jack I began thinking about a different theme, something like, how can everyone win, can everyone win, winning is for everyone...."
In subsequent emails, The Broadmoor provided the city with traffic counts and ticket sales at Seven Falls, which is owned by the resort and lies just west of Strawberry Fields. "Thank you Steve," wrote the city's traffic manager Kathleen Krager on March 24. "I will prepare a report for the Parks Board and be there to present."
Plans for a conservation easement began to take shape in February, and in March the resort sent the city dozens of pictures of trash and drainage erosion in Strawberry Fields.
On March 29, the day before a public meeting at Gold Camp Elementary School, The Broadmoor sent its presentation to the Parks Department saying, "Please give him [Damioli] feedback." The department obliged with wording changes.
That same day, parks employee Christi Mehew wrote to Bartolin's assistant that Council would vote on the land exchange May 10, a date that "has not been released to the public yet. Whew!"
After the March 30 meeting, which drew hundreds of residents, Palus asked for a meeting "with all the presenters."
On April 5 — nine days before the Parks Advisory Board considered the land swap and approved it — the city sent the first draft of the resolution to The Broadmoor.
Within about four hours, Broadmoor attorney Kyle Hybl sent recommended changes. Bartolin wrote to Palus, saying the resort wouldn't pursue a tax credit for the conservation easement. But, he said, The Broadmoor wanted a tax break for the difference in value between The Broadmoor's land and the city land.
On April 6, Palus wrote to Damioli and Bartolin, noting the city has "already signed the letter of intent with the Palmer Land Trust [for a conservation easement] so they can start their due diligence.
"He [Mayor Suthers] was pleased to hear we were moving forward with this process."