"Some things are really inviolable, and they should be. Like open space," says Woody Garnsey, a leader of Save Open Space Denver, the group that's fighting for the preservation of the conservation easement. Depending on whom you ask, that easement prevents the land from being used for anything other than a park or for anything other than a golf course.
Now, however, with signature-gathering next to impossible until both the state and city work out kinks in a possible electronic signature-gathering process, proponents of the initiative have found an ally in Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who is pushing for Denver City Council to refer the initiative to the November ballot.
On May 18, during an at-times contentious committee hearing, councilmembers debated whether to move forward with the initiative, which would give approval power to Denver voters on any question of canceling conservation easements and whenever the city wants to allow commercial or residential development on land designated for parks.
"There has to be pushback by people who feel strongly about open space in this day and age," says Garnsey, who hopes that Denver will purchase the 155-acre parcel that houses the golf course and turn it into a city park.
Although the initiative was forwarded to another committee on a 6-5 vote, a handful of the members who spoke during the meeting expressed skepticism about the proposal
"Here’s a real concern that I have. How does the community feel about this?" asked Chris Herndon, the representative whose district includes the property. "Where is the outreach?"
Herndon said that Save Open Space hadn't contacted his office, nor did it reach out to a handful of neighborhood organizations that Herndon named.
There was no public-comment period during the committee hearing, but some community members in the audience submitted written comments.
"Northeast Park Hill has many needs — attainable affordable housing; a supermarket, restaurants and retail; a good park with amenities for children; job training and business opportunities; and more," Abdur Rahim Ali, the imam at the Northeast Denver Islamic Center, wrote in a letter to council about the initiative. "Many of us have been distrustful of development efforts in the past, but we think a balanced plan for the former golf course could help this neighborhood. We need the people who live in the immediate neighborhood to have the conversation to figure out what the right balance can be."
The conservation easement has been in place since 1997, when Denver City Council passed a measure during Wellington Webb's time as mayor. Webb is now a proponent of the ballot initiative.
The city had originally planned to purchase the golf course using $2 million generated from a bond measure passed in 1989 from the George W. Clayton Trust, which is managed by Clayton Early Learning, a nonprofit that serves low-income children and runs a preschool and educational research institute. But when the money wasn't enough to buy the property, the city instead ended up offering it in exchange for the easement.
The land is currently owned by Westside Investment Partners, which bought the property for $24 million in July 2019 from the George W. Clayton Trust. Westside plans to work with the Department of Community Planning and Development and members of the neighborhood over the next year, pandemic permitting, to create a small area plan for the land and adjacent areas.
"We acknowledge that there needs to be a park here, and we’ve already committed to at least a sixty-acre park," says Kenneth Ho, the project lead at Westside, who says the company also envisions affordable housing on the land. "Because the property is large enough, we can do a number of different things and work with the community to truly find solutions that can address their issues."
From Ho's perspective, the conservation easement only allows for the land to be used as a golf course, and so would have to be lifted by Denver City Council to allow for other uses. The Denver City Attorney's Office agrees, and has stated that in its analysis of the easement.
However, Garnsey, a retired lawyer, doesn't believe the city's interpretation is correct.
"It’s our position that if you read that document, the overarching conservation purpose of the easement is to preserve it as open space for the aesthetic and scenic beauty, and for recreational purposes," says Garnsey.
According to her office's research, CdeBaca told committee members that there are no other conservation easements in Denver.
Still, while the initiative is clearly inspired by the Park Hill Golf Club controversy, its language is not just limited to this conservation easement.
"We know in the future there could be conservation easements," says Garnsey. "Conservation easements, when they’re in place, should be protected."
The measure would not only allow residents to vote on whether an easement should be removed, but also to vote any time the city wants to allow commercial or residential development on park land.
"Because this is the charter and it mentions all city parks, all conservation easements, I believe that it is very weighty, and I do not think that it's ready to go to the next level," said Councilwoman Robin Kniech.
During the hearing, other members pointed out that any land designated as park land will already remain as such unless voters want to approve a sale by the city, making this measure duplicative.
But Garnsey has a response to this critique, too. "With all the creative things that are going on in the world of development, there could be a public-private partnership that would not constitute a sale or a lease," he says.
The initiative will go to a vote in another council committee in June. The golf course is now closed.