Opponents of developing the 155-acre Park Hill Golf Course property have sued the City of Denver, arguing that the city has been violating provisions of the conservation easement that applies to the land.
"What this boils down to is the simple fight over green space versus concrete, and we have citizens from all walks of life who put their names on this lawsuit," says Penfield Tate, one of the plaintiffs suing the City of Denver, Mayor Michael Hancock, and Community Planning and Development Executive Director Laura Aldrete. Westside Investment Partners, the development company that purchased the defunct golf course property from the George W. Clayton Trust for $24 million in 2019, is not a named defendant in the legal complaint.
In addition to Tate, fifteen individual plaintiffs — including a representative of every Denver City Council district — and the advocacy group Save Open Space Denver are parties to the lawsuit filed in Denver District Court on June 23. It asks a judge to rule that the defendants have violated Colorado law by spending taxpayer-funded government resources on a "planning and development process for land subject to a conservation easement, prior to a court" terminating that easement. The plaintiffs also want a judge to order the city to stop all planning work associated with the property unless the city gets a court order terminating the easement.
“The city is wastefully spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a major planning and development process for land that cannot be developed without a court order under Colorado law. Since the city refuses to address the Colorado conservation easement statute mandate, we’re seeking a court order that it must do so now," Tate says.
Westside, which brought in the Holleran Group as a co-developer last fall, wants to build a mixed-use development with at least sixty acres of open space on the property. As the law currently stands, in order to develop the property Westside will eventually need to ask the City of Denver to lift the conservation easement that's been attached to it since 1997. In order to lift that easement, the city would need to ask a court to terminate the easement, and then Denver City Council would need to approve lifting it. After that, Westside could apply for rezoning of the property that would allow a mixed-use development.
However, Save Open Space Denver, which counts former state legislator and mayoral candidate Tate and former mayor Wellington Webb among its members, has been trying to keep the conservation easement in place. SOS Denver wants the city to buy the property and turn the golf course, which has been closed since 2018, into a municipal park.
Both sides agree that the city would need to lift the easement before any actual development could take place.
SOS Denver, through its campaign Yes for Parks and Open Space, just landed an initiative on the November ballot that, if passed, would effectively block development of the property by requiring voter approval whenever the city wants to lift a conservation easement. At the same time, Westside is funding a campaign to land a nearly identical initiative on the ballot that would neutralize the Yes for Parks and Open Space proposal by defining "conservation easement" in a way that exempts the Park Hill Golf Course easement from the voter approval requirements of the other initiative. That campaign, Empower Northeast Denver, needs to submit 9,184 valid signatures by July 6 to get its initiative on the ballot. If both initiatives pass, Denver City Council could lift the easement without needing approval from Denver voters.
Since February, Community Planning and Development has been leading a "visioning process" for the Park Hill Golf Course. The steering committee associated with this process will provide recommendations to city officials on what should be done with the land later this summer.
For that "visioning process" and other planning aspects associated with the Park Hill Golf Course property, the City of Denver has contracted with third-party entities to the tune of over $280,000. Additionally, from January 2020, through April 9, 2021, CPD staff spent at least 1,166 hours on the "CPD-led planning and development process, all of which has been funded with taxpayers’ money," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also asserts that in a December 2019 email, CPD head Aldrete referred to Westside Investment Partners as "the client." In a January 2021 Denver City Council committee meeting, Aldrete called the visioning process for the land "market driven by a developer," the complaint states.
"The result of the CPD-led planning and development process is a foregone conclusion: a plan for development of the Protected Land in accord with Westside’s intentions in purchasing the property as a real estate developer," the plaintiffs argue.
In pursuing the process, the lawsuit argues that the City of Denver is putting the cart before the horse: The city needs to get a judge to terminate the conservation easement before it pursues any planning process that could result in the development of the property, the plaintiffs say.
To back this argument, the complaint cites Colorado law — specifically, a statute that reads: "If it is determined that conditions on or surrounding a property encumbered by a conservation easement in gross change so that it becomes impossible to fulfill its conservation purposes that are defined in the deed of conservation easement, a court with jurisdiction may, at the joint request of both the owner of property encumbered by a conservation easement and the holder of the easement, terminate, release, extinguish, or abandon the conservation easement."
In response to the lawsuit, Laura Swartz, a spokesperson for Community Planning and Development, points out, "The city’s planning department routinely embarks on community planning processes for large parcels of land in Denver to ensure the citizens who live around the property in question have the ability to guide its future use. Involving residents in city planning is how cities create complete neighborhoods, which offer green space, recreation opportunities, housing for a range of incomes, education, services, health care, with a focus on access for all residents."
Here's the full complaint: