Crown Hill Park open-space defenders protest Jefferson County's "nature play" proposal

Plenty of folks in Colorado like their nature as natural as possible.

So when park officials began pushing for various amenities and improvements at a popular open-space area in Denver's western suburbs -- including close to $200,000 worth of "nature play" installations that look a lot like playgrounds -- the nature lovers pushed back in force.

Turnout at last night's Jefferson County Open Space meeting on the future of Crown Hill Park was so strong that dozens of frustrated citizens were turned away at the door of the cramped Wheat Ridge Active Adult Center, which could safely seat only 190 people. JCOS director Tom Hoby estimated that twenty to thirty people couldn't get in, but later conceded it could have been as many as fifty -- and one grassroots activist estimates the number as closer to 150.

Inside, Hoby got an earful about the need to preserve the charms of Crown Hill, a wildlife haven just east of Kipling that attracts up to 400,000 visitors a year. Hoby's team has been in the process of fixing trails, upgrading the beleaguered restrooms and scrapping splinter-inflicting fitness stations in the park that date back thirty years. But JCOS also devised plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the park more family-oriented, including adding a sheltered picnic area and "nature play" areas designed to get kids off the sofa and more engaged in the outdoors. Opponents say the proposed amenities were set in motion with little public input and would seriously alter the character of Crown Hill, which hosts a hundred species of migratory birds and contains a wetlands north of its lake.

"I'm not sure why they are trying to urbanize the park," says Lakewood resident Roberta Garrett. "People like it the way it is. You can see wildlife in the middle of a city."

Garrett has been visiting Crown Hill for 23 years. She's watched, transfixed, as a bald eagle feasted on a fish on an icy day while crows hovered below, waiting for scraps. She doesn't see how an influx of amenities will make anything better for the birds and animals. "I never thought I'd have to protect open space from Open Space," says Garrett, who runs one of several websites that have sprung up protesting the plan. "There's no transparency. This is not what we voted for."

Continue for more about last night's Crown Hill meeting. At last night's meeting, run by independent facilitators and designed to solicit community input after complaints that JCOS surveys and comment cards didn't go far enough, Hoby stressed that no decisions had been made about the amenities. "We don't want to build facilities that aren't desired," he said. "We just need to figure out what folks want."

What they don't want, judging from the guffaws and emphatic statements last night, are some of the tools Jeffco is proposing to help combat the child-obesity epidemic. These include Dig It, a sort of extra-large sandbox area for digging and tunneling that's supposed to (in Hoby's words) "teach kids about organisms that live underground"; The Perch, a glorified treehouse that offers kids "a bird's-eye perspective"; and Climb On, an arrangement of artificial boulders that promises to "bring a little bit of the alpine world" to Crown Hill.

Meeting participants pointed out an existing playground across the street from Crown Hill and wondered why kids couldn't just play in nature rather than be exposed to "Nature Play."

Jefferson County Open Space continues until March 21 to collect surveys from residents regarding the proposal, and another public meeting is scheduled for April 30.

Yet Crown Hill is hardly the only open-space debate in the metro area pitting advocates of natural areas against the forces of development. Denver is engaged in an even higher-stakes battle over the fate of a natural area adjacent to Hentzel Park. Mayor Michael Hancock wants to swap nine acres of what he calls "blighted" land to the Denver Public Schools in exchange for an office building downtown, which he wants to turn into a services center for domestic-violence victims. That has caused an uproar among nature lovers that's expected to carry over to a city council committee meeting on the proposal tomorrow morning.

More from our Environment archive: "Hentzell Park: Mayor Hancock forges ahead with open space land swap."

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