Ann Bonnell stands in front of a rusted steel gate at the Denver Botanic Garden's Chatfield Arboretum and stares at the No Trespassing sign. In front of her, acres of pristine Colorado prairie wash up to the base of the Dakota Hogback, a long chain of ridged slopes that run from Roxborough State Park to Red Rocks. It's unbroken wilderness for as far as the eye can see. Bonnell fingers her Arboretum "Nature Guide" pin and waits for a moment, trying to collect her thoughts. Then she waves a hand in front of her and says, "It's gone. All of it."
Soon the sloping hills--the entire 345 acres--will be covered with row upon row of look-alike houses on sixth-of-an-acre lots. The official plans are already on file with the county recorder. Chatfield Green, an 805-unit subdivision that will border the arboretum and bring an estimated 8,000 cars per day through the midsection of the botanical preserve, is going ahead full steam.
Thanks to Mayor Wellington Webb.
The Denver mayor and his former parks manager have everything to do with the fact that the Jefferson County subdivision is going to be a reality. Because Webb's administration could have stopped First City Realty Inc., a Canadian company, from developing the land. Or it could have allowed the issue of developing 805 homes next to a nature preserve, three wetlands and a wildlife corridor to be publicly debated and voted on by the city council. Or it could have tried to arrange a purchase by Jeffco Open Space or Great Outdoors Colorado.
Instead, Denver parks boss Bruce Alexander approved the development--and then retired a week later. Shortly afterward, Webb declared "Hats Off to the Platte" in his self-proclaimed commitment to open space along the river--the same river that happens to closely parallel the Chatfield Arboretum.
Denver had a say over the development of Chatfield Green because the city rents a piece of federal land that lies between First City's property and Wadsworth Boulevard--the only viable access to the planned subdivision. The developer needed an easement across that land to get water, utilities, sewage and cable onto its property. According to the city's contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the feds had to get Denver's blessing to approve that easement.
And there were plenty of reasons to withhold approval. The South Platte Group Sierra Club, the Enos Mills Group Sierra Club, the Denver Audubon Society and Clean Water Action all wrote to Bruce Alexander, expressing their fears that the easement would destroy the environmental integrity of the Arboretum and cause significant water-quality degradation.
The land surrounding Chatfield Reservoir is known for its propensity to flood--that's why it was chosen as a reservoir site in the first place. And the Corp of Engineers' own hydrologists had significant concerns regarding the potential for erosion, insufficient drainage and flooding. The Arboretum is the site of three artificially constructed wetlands built to replace natural wetlands destroyed when C-470 was built. Those wetlands cost taxpayers close to $1 million, an investment that contaminated overflow drainage from more than 800 homes could easily wipe out.
"Urbanization isn't good for water quality or wildlife," Corps engineer John Anderson puts it simply.
There were also legal questions about granting the easement. Alison Maynard, an attorney who is donating her time to represent the two Sierra Club groups and Ann Bonnell, argues that because the Botanic Gardens used more than $60,000 in federal grant money to develop the Arboretum, the Secretary of the Interior must determine that granting the easement would not "work a conversion" of the Arboretum from its intended use. No such determination has been made.
In addition, no preliminary environmental assessment--let alone a formal Environmental Impact Statement--has been made. The National Environmental Policy Act allows a waiver of the need for an EIS when easements involve "minor disturbances to earth, air and water." Whether 800 homes and 8,000 cars a day constitute a "minor disturbance" is at least debatable.
But despite those environmental and legal concerns, the blessing for the easement came. On July 24, 1995, Bruce Alexander sent a letter to Robert Reed of the Corp of Engineers Omaha District not only approving the easement but asking the Corps to proceed with it. One week later, Alexander retired. "The developer owns the land and has a right to develop it," says Alexander, a former bank president whom Webb appointed parks manager in 1991. "I was satisfied with the protections that they agreed to give the Garden."
But questions remain. Like why a single nod from a non-elected official could be used to effectively amend a lease--in essence giving away city-controlled property. City councilman Ed Thomas wants to know why the council wasn't forced to vote on the issue. "In my opinion, a decision that far-reaching has to belong in the court of public opinion," Thomas says. "But the city attorney wrote some opinion that the mayor and the department of recreation are within their legal parameters to sign off on the decision...they tell me to mind my own business."
Thomas says he made it his business the minute he actually saw the land in question. "You just can't believe it," the councilman says. "They're planning on taking 340 acres of wilderness--where the deer and the antelope play--from C-470 and Wadsworth west to the hogback and wiping it out. And no one's doing anything about it."
Assistant City Attorney Andrew Weber says he didn't write a formal opinion stating that Alexander was the correct person to sign off on the easement; he just answered Alexander when the parks boss asked whether he was the best person to decide. "The city has a contract with the Botanic Gardens to manage the property," Weber says. "And [Alexander] was the level of approval called for by the contract."
But Alison Maynard argues that because the development plan is so extensive, a granting of the easement essentially amends the lease agreement between the city and the Corps. Therefore, she says, the city council should be required to pass an ordinance.
Weber never saw the development plans. But he argues that even if the easement does fundamentally change the lease, the city council still wouldn't have to vote. "Now, if this were city-owned land, and someone wanted an easement over it, I'd agree with you [that the council should vote]," he says.
Rick Daley, executive director of the Botanic Gardens, says he doesn't think the city had a choice. "We weren't in a position to deny the easement," he says. "We were in a position to negotiate with the developer to get the best possible protection for the arboretum." So the Botanic Gardens got the developer to agree to build water-retention ponds to help control the possibility of contaminated flooding. The developer also agreed to plant trees as a screen. "Our preference," says Daley, "would always be open space. But that wasn't an option."
Maynard and Bonnell disagree: They say it was an option, but that the city failed to act. One of Webb's top aides says the option wasn't exercised because the city was "sensitive" to jurisdictional issues.
Andrew Wallach, who deals with parks and open space for the mayor and was appointed to coordinate Webb's Platte River improvement campaign earlier this month, says it's an issue of local rule. The land technically is part of Littleton, which annexed it in anticipation of the land being developed. "This is a Littleton issue," says Wallach, even though Littleton had no say in the granting of the easement. "The developer made it clear that he wouldn't sell the land for open space, even if the groups could get the money."
City councilwoman Susan Barnes-Gelt chaired a meeting of the City Council's Public Amenities committee, where the issue was brought up. "Ted [Hackworth], Happy [Haynes] and I were all very concerned about making land-use decisions out of our jurisdiction," she says.
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But when Barnes-Gelt is told that Denver could well have stopped the easement by protesting it under the terms of its lease with the Corps, she is taken aback. "Not according to the city attorney," she says.
Michael Hendrix, the local representative for First City Realty, says that all the parties involved got their say in the matter--and then some. "What usually takes sixty days took three times that long," Hendrix says. "I've had to go above and beyond what's normal. We've mitigated or taken care of everything that has come up in this situation. The only people who are unhappy are the ones that don't want to see it developed at all."
Ann Bonnell probably wouldn't disagree with that. She's wistful when she describes the creatures that come down the wildlife corridor, and she points to the two red-tailed hawks that drift lazily overhead. But she isn't about to quit. "They've had their lawyers write two letters threatening to sue me if I don't stop talking about this development," she says. "But they don't scare me."
Hendrix says he expects First City to begin breaking ground on the first 171 lots by the first of the year.