Strawberry Hills Forever
A contentious land deal sparks public outcry
by Jack Queen
Walk past the staid City Hall offices of Colorado Springs city councilmembers and, tucked in a far corner of the third floor, you’ll find the chamber of Councilman Bill Murray. On his desk, an orange lava lamp bubbles next to a set of VR goggles. In the corner, there are three placards—red, green and yellow—attached to yardsticks that read “False” “1/2 False” and “True.”
“I used those at a hearing about the City of Champions initiative,” Murray chuckles. “They wouldn’t let me talk, so I just stood up there and every time they said something wrong…”
He hoists the red “False” sign with an impish grin.
I’m meeting with Murray to discuss a proposed land swap between the city and the Broadmoor, a luxury hotel and resort near Cheyenne Canyon. In exchange for the 189-acre Strawberry Hills open space, as well as a small parking lot near the Broadmoor’s Cog Railway, the city would get a mish-mash of land—more than 300 acres—currently owned by the Broadmoor, including sections of the Manitou Incline and Barr Trail. The proposal, however, has stirred controversy among residents who see trading a beloved open space to the well-heeled Broadmoor as an unholy deal.
“I’d say it’s been about five to one, people telling me they oppose it versus support it,” says Murray, as he settles into a large chair with a t-shirt bearing an image of actor Bill Murray draped across it. This particular Bill Murray, however, has a much more intense countenance, with deep blue eyes and a sharp nose. He makes little effort to hide his skepticism of the deal.
“Strawberry Hills has belonged to Colorado Springs for 126 years,” he says. “You have to give me a very compelling—compelling with a capital C— [reason] to give it away, trade or no trade.”
In Murray’s view, giving the open space away for anything is highly problematic, but doing so in exchange for the parcels the Broadmoor is offering is downright ludicrous. He has a point. Strawberry Hills is a large section of pristine Front Range foothills with a network of hiking and mountain biking trails, a focal point for the surrounding neighborhood. Muskoge Point, on the other hand, the largest single parcel offered to the city, is remote and difficult to access. Also on the table are strips of land currently owned by the Broadmoor that include sections of the highly popular Barr Trail and Manitou Incline. Easements that permitted hikers to traverse these sections of private property expired in 2012, and handing them over to the city is billed as a way to “ensure public access.”
“I’d really love to see the Broadmoor ever try to close the Incline,” says Murray with a wry smile.
“And here’s the thing about the Manitou Incline,” he says, pausing for effect. “It’s in Manitou. It’s not even Colorado Springs!”
According to Murray, the Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation Department perennially tells city council its budget is stretched too thin and it is unable to adequately maintain city parks.
“And now they want to double that,” says Murray. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
He suspects that the true impetus for the deal were rumors—substantiated or not—that the city was going to put a BMX park in Strawberry Hills, which is presumably in conflict with the Broadmoor’s“brand” (the resort is only a half-mile or so from the open space). That allegedly prompted the Broadmoor to find a way to acquire the parcel, which it now plans to develop into a picnic and “boutique horseback riding” area.
The company says that all trails constructed will be free and open to the public. The proposed deal does contain safeguards against many people’s understandable fear that once the Broadmoor acquired Strawberry Hills, it would develop the pristine acreage as it pleased, putting up another hotel or restaurant or fencing it off to restrict public access. The land would be handed over with deed restrictions that give the city right of first refusal if the Broadmoor were to sell it, as well as a conservation easement that includes a laundry list of restrictions on what could be done with the land.
Still, that’s not much comfort for Murray (and apparently many of his constituents), who thinks the Broadmoor’s army of lawyers could finagle the company out of such commitments.
“They say it’s a gift horse, but I say it’s a Trojan horse, because the inside is hollow. I’m open to discussing it, but this feels like an ultimatum. And I don’t like ultimatums,” said Murray.
That evening, a hundred or so people gathered at Gold Camp Elementary in the hills near Cheyenne Canyon for a public meeting regarding the proposal. While waiting for the meeting to start, people milled about and looked at the large poster board maps and charts on display that outlined the details of the swap.
Resident Carol Myer was very skeptical of the deal but willing to hear the city out. She lives nearby and walks her dogs in Strawberry Hills every day.
“What the Broadmoor is doing is giving us small pieces of land—land that they already let us use—in exchange for this pristine area,” she says. “And you know, it was a very, very natural area, but the city came and did fire mitigation. Next thing you know, the Broadmoor comes along and says they want it.”
The woman in charge, Karen Paulis of the Parks and Recreation Department, introduces a panel of city officials as well as Jack Damioli, president and CEO of the Broadmoor, before diving in to her lead-off presentation. Whirring through dense slides full of color-coded diagrams and charts galore, she outlines the intricacies of this decision-making process with zeal, as if channeling Leslie Knope, Amy Poehler’s ebullient character in the show “Parks and Recreation.” When she finishes, the audience is treated to the expertise of each panelist, offering thorough speeches regarding things like parking, conservation and, of course, trash (among the things that have been found dumped on the remote Old Stage Road near Strawberry Fields are a New York Times newspaper box and a dead horse).
The exhaustive information dump gives you a sense of how long the city has been working on this, and while one has to appreciate how thorough a job the parks officials have done—outlining just about every detail of the proposal and concocting a byzantine decision-making process—this also demonstrates how invested in the deal the city already is. More than 16 months of work by a small cadre of city workers, glossy placards and information cards, public meetings, and all of this bureaucratic wrangling costs money. If city council were to reject the proposal when they vote on it next month, it would be a whole lot of work for nothing.
After the presentations, the meeting is open to public comment, and dozens of people immediately form a line behind the podium that stretches the length of the cafeteria. The first person to speak, it turns out, is the Broadmoor’s general counsel. Unsurprisingly, he praises the deal, but not before waxing poetic about growing up in the Springs riding mountain bikes and hiking its many trails. He emphasizes the Broadmoor’s commitment to responsible stewardship of the land.
Next, however, come some angrier voices, including that of Richard Skorman, owner of local coffee shop Poor Richard’s and active member of the community.
“This is the worst public process I’ve ever been a part of,” he says, to thunderous applause. “This has all been done backwards and behind our backs. This is terrible, terrible politics.”
The next speaker disputed the city’s appraisal figures, cited as $2.257 million in value to the Broadmoor and $3.611 million to the city.
After several forceful orations from the proposal’s detractors, often punctuated by applause and cheers, its supporters start to find their voice. Several people step up to the microphone.
“I’ve been involved in conservation for many, many years,” says a local rancher in a black cowboy hat and leather jacket. “And I think that this conservation easement will ultimately be better for the land. It will be able to be managed, not just preserved, by the Broadmoor.”
The back-and-forth continued for more than two hours. When the meeting finally concluded, I found Councilman Murray, who had also been sitting in the front row (he hadn’t brought his signs).
“Well, I was planning on speaking but holy cow, that was long,” he says, somewhat exasperated. Unsurprisingly, his stance has not changed.
“I don’t think you’re going to change anyone’s mind with this type of thing,” says one of his companions, a man who works for the El Pomar Foundation and preferred not to be named. “It’s all emotion and feeling. People get an idea about something based on that and then make up their own facts and stories to fit it.”