The Colorado Court of Appeals on Thursday unanimously upheld the controversial Strawberry Hill land swap between Colorado Springs and The Broadmoor hotel.
Local nonprofit Save Cheyenne sued in 2016 after Colorado Springs traded more than 180 acres at Strawberry Hill to The Broadmoor for 371 acres split between 14 different parcels. The case was appealed after a District Court judge dismissed it.
Save Cheyenne argued that City Council was prevented from selling or trading the Strawberry Hill property without a referendum because its purchase 1n 1885 had been approved by city residents. But City Attorney Wynetta Massey argued that Colorado Springs is a home rule city, which means the council’s decision to approve the swap supersedes the state’s laws.
Ruth Obee, of Save Cheyenne, said the appellate court’s ruling wasn’t necessarily the end of the court fight.
"They’re basically saying the previous court didn’t do anything egregious, but it doesn’t really make a judgment on the actual morality or value of the court case," Obee said. "A worse outcome would be if they sent it back to the District Court because then it becomes a trial and that’s expensive."
Save Cheyenne can ask the Colorado Supreme Court to take up the case, Obee said.
"And they have a very good reputation for looking at things in terms of a slightly wider view," she said. The Supreme Court could overturn the deal if it agrees to hear the case, according to opponents.
Mayor John Suthers said he’d be surprised if the Supreme Court looked at the case. Generally, a case must have a new or "novel" issue at stake for the Supreme Court to consider taking it and Save Cheyenne’s arguments are neither, he said.
In addition, the Court of Appeals’ ruling was unanimous and came much quicker than expected, Suthers said. Both indicate that there was a "lack of controversy" with the case, he said, adding he believes the swap will benefit the city.
Mark Gibson, an attorney representing The Broadmoor, declined to comment on the ruling.
City Council President Richard Skorman, who led the opposition to the trade before winning a council seat, said the swap sets a dangerous precedent for public lands. He resigned from Save Cheyenne when he ran for the council to avoid a conflict of interest.
"It’s a tough one," Skorman said. "I spent two years of my life on this and tried to have the questions brought up about public land."
Strawberry Hill, southwest of the intersection of Evans and Mesa avenues, has been open to the public since residents voted to buy the land for $5,000. That vote dictated that it remain open to the public.
Skorman has argued that The Broadmoor’s plan to reserve an 8.4-acre building envelope in Strawberry Hill solely for its guests violates the rules set by that vote.
Skorman conceded that property deeds have changed hands, but the council could look at how land deals are handled in the future.
If the council approves it, a question could be placed on the ballot in April 2019 asking if voter approval should be required for similar trades.
Skorman also said the city might want to revise its appraisal process after the Colorado Board of Real Estate Appraisers penalized the city employee for Strawberry Hill’s valuation, saying he lacked documentation to support his findings.
The Broadmoor is owned by the Denver-based Anschutz Corp., whose Clarity Media Group owns The Gazette.