By KELSEY MAXWELL
For over a year, the City of Colorado Springs has been engaged in a heated debate about the conservation of public lands. In January 2016, the City Council announced their intentions to exchange property with the Broadmoor, a deal that council members deemed as an “exciting opportunity” for the development of the city. With this exchange, 371 acres of land currently owned by the Broadmoor would be awarded to the City of Colorado Springs. These 371 acres included the base of the Barr Trail, the Manitou Incline, Muscoco Mountain, and land neighboring Bear Creek Park. In exchange, the Broadmoor would receive Strawberry Fields, a 189-acre open space within the southern bounds of Cheyenne Canyon Park. On the surface, this exchange appears to be a win for the City of Colorado Springs because it will be accumulating more land. However, the rich and unique history of Strawberry Fields complicates this issue.
Strawberry Fields has been a designated public park since 1855 when the land was purchased by the people of Colorado Springs. Despite its location within the commonly traveled Cheyenne Canyon Park, very few residents are familiar with the area because it has been entirely neglected by the city. Located just a few miles up Mesa Road, the open space has no trail signs, no official parking lot, and has never been maintained by the park service. As such, Strawberry Fields is one of the most pristine and remote open spaces in the city, providing essential habitat to a significant population of wildlife and a unique hiking experience for Colorado Springs residents.
The exceptionality of Strawberry Fields is precisely what sparked so much controversy around this property exchange. In the Broadmoor’s completed appraisals, Strawberry Fields was worth $1.6 million, an incredibly low valuation in comparison to appraisals performed on neighboring land of lesser or equal quality. Furthermore, the 371 acres of land awarded to the City of Colorado Springs was valued at $3.3 million, which community members have also declared inaccurate because areas such as the Incline and Muscoco Mountain are in constant need of maintenance due to landslides and excessive erosion. Just last year, the Incline required $2 million in upkeep and repair. Considering the financial burden of accumulating these highly trafficked hiking areas, it seems illogical that the city would be willing to partake in this deal.
These seemingly false land appraisals, as well as the City Council’s neglecting to address the financial burden of this land exchange, has led local environmental stewards such as Kent Obee, the president of the Save Cheyenne organization, to claim that this exchange is a “corporate giveaway,” in which council members have been heavily influenced by the political power of the Broadmoor to approve this deal, even though it will be economically unfavorable and environmentally detrimental for the city. Furthermore, the exchange is questionable in its legality, which has led conservationists to file a lawsuit against the Broadmoor and the City of Colorado Springs.
Save Cheyenne, as well as other environmental groups like the Sierra Club of Colorado Springs, have deemed the property exchange illegal on multiple levels. Primarily, they have declared that the land exchange violates the common law of dedication whereby land purchased by the citizens cannot be sold or traded by city municipalities. Furthermore, the lawsuit also claims that the city is blatantly prioritizing corporate interest, which violates the Colorado Constitution. Over the past year, the court case has undergone multiple appeals and dismissals and is currently awaiting trial. Because of the implications this court case has for the future of public lands in Colorado, this controversy has made national news; the court case will likely make it to the Colorado State Supreme court.
There is significant public opposition to this issue, which demonstrates the value that the community places on the preservation of natural public lands. A citywide poll has indicted that 85 percent of Colorado Springs residents oppose this exchange and the Save Cheyenne group has raised over $100,000 in donations to help fund the court case against the city and the Broadmoor. Although the exchange will ensure the Strawberry Fields is protected under a conservation easement by Palmer Land Trust, the community still opposes the commercialization and privatization of the land.
The Broadmoor intends to develop the land into equestrian trails with an 8.5-acre private expanse in the middle of the park that will include horse stables and a pavilion for large events. Although the conservation easement technically ensures that the land will still be open to the public, the land trust does not ensure ease of accessibility, and the Broadmoor would still have the authority to privatize trails as exclusively equestrian. Many Colorado Springs residents living near the Broadmoor and Strawberry Fields support the land exchange, because they would like to see the park better maintained. However, others believe that the development of the land, especially the 8.5-acre private space in the middle of the park, would destroy the remoteness of the open space that has provided wildlife and hikers alike with a valuable refuge.
The polarization of this issue highlights the complex identity of Colorado Springs as a home to both staunch conservatives as well as passionate environmentalists. The push to commercialize Strawberry Fields is emblematic of a national trend, in which the national government is pushing to privatize public lands (such as the Bears Ears Monument in Utah), while the public is scrambling to organize opposition. As we continue to rapidly develop natural land in the U.S., it is essential that as citizens, we take the time to assess the true value of these open spaces within our communities. The commercialization of Strawberry Fields will certainly bring economic prosperity to the city, but at what cost?