The Protect Our Parks (POPS) Question 2B would amend the Colorado Springs City Charter to require that any “conveyance” – that is sale, trade, etc. – of parkland to a private entity would have to be approved by the voters in an election. (Under current City Charter provisions, decisions about parkland conveyances are left in the hands of city officials.)
The requirement for voter approval of parkland conveyances already exists in the vast majority of Colorado cities and towns – whether through State Statue or provisions in their city charters in the case of “home rule” cities. Neighbors to the north including Denver, Aurora, Arvada and Boulder have voter protection of their parklands. Colorado Springs is very much an outlier.
Even in Colorado Springs, voter protection exists for parkland and open space acquired through the voter-approved TOPS (Trails, Open Space and Parks) program. No TOPS-purchased properties can be sold without voter approval – and in the over twenty year history of the TOPS program this hasn’t been a problem.
Our parks and open spaces are Colorado Springs’ crown jewels. They are what enable us to enjoy and recreate in our spectacular natural setting – and they belong to all of us, the citizens of Colorado Springs. This was recognized and indeed emphasized by city founder General William Palmer when he specifically made his generous parkland bequests to “the citizens of Colorado Springs.” To buttress this point, he placed strict deed restrictions against any sale of his donated lands.
General Palmer was prescient – and, sadly, over its 150-year history, our community – and its political leaders – have had a very mixed record on protecting our parklands. In the 1970’s the League of Women Voters had to sue to prevent the then-city government from selling off the northern half of Monument Valley Park for development. Today’s Rock Ledge Ranch was also nearly lost. A dozen years ago, during the “Great Recession,” some El Paso County Commissioners actively promoted the selling of county-owned regional parks such as Bear Creek Park. More recently, of course, we traded away almost 200 acres of historic North Cheyenne Cañon Park in the City/Broadmoor Hotel land swap.
Time and time again, it has been the citizens of Colorado Springs – not the politicians and bureaucrats – who have had to step up to preserve precious lands. It was citizen activism that gave Colorado Springs the TOPS program and through it saved properties such as Red Rock Canyon, the Stratton Open Space, Manitou Section 16, and much more. Left to the politicians, all of these almost certainly would be housing and commercial developments today.
Opponents of Question 2B argue that we have a system of “representative government” – and that we entrust decision-making to our elected representatives. However, our system of government also comes with a number of checks, balances and constitutional safeguards. Here in Colorado with the TABOR amendment to the state constitution (and city charter), we have determined that a tax increase has to be approved by the votes – not the elected representatives. A tax increase can be repealed, but parkland given away is parkland gone forever.
It is also claimed that approval of 2B will hamstring the city’s ability to be “nimble” in making land acquisitions or minor adjustments to existing parkland borders. In point of fact, the 2B ballot language was carefully negotiated with the city’s parks and legal staff to provide a number of exceptions to the voter approval requirement while maintaining it for any major parkland conveyance. Likewise, other Colorado municipalities with voter protection of their parks report no difficulties in terms of missed opportunities.
It is also argued that POPS will cost the city (and taxpayers) to do elections involving a land conveyance. This is grossly misleading. A POPS item could go on a city election (April-odd years) at no cost – and at no cost even on a general election ballot (November-even years) when there are other city items which happens most years.
Vote “yes” on 2B – but also “no” on the rival parks measure 2C which, while it raises the bar for parkland conveyances, still leaves the fate of our crown jewels in the hands of politicians.
There are four major problems with 2B:
1. 2B requires a costly election (up to $350,000).
2. 2B causes delay. Some donors have tax-year or other time concerns and 2B doesn’t allow transactions within a tight time frame.
3. 2B would have prohibited the creation of the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center.
4. The protections in 2B are illusory. In 1997 the preservation of the Houck Estate was on the ballot. Voters approved the loss of 675 acres.
Question 2C protects our parks without the problems of 2B. 2C adopts a City Charter requirement that 7 of the 9 council members must approve transactions. Unlike 2B, 2C doesn’t allow out-of-state donors to try to buy an election.
That’s why Mayor John Suthers and groups like the Trails and Open Space Coalition, Visit COS, the Colorado Springs Chamber, and the volunteer citizens serving on the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Advisory Board, all support Question 2C – not 2B – as the preferred method to protect our City’s parks.