Denver City Council Rejects Conservation Easement Ballot Initiative for Park Hill | Westword

Denver City Council Rejects Park Hill Conservation Easement Initiative

A developer bought the former golf course last year.
The Park Hill Golf Club remains one of the largest expanses of open space in metro Denver...for now.
The Park Hill Golf Club remains one of the largest expanses of open space in metro Denver...for now. Anthony Camera
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The future of the Park Hill Golf Club property won't be decided by the November election.

At its August 24 meeting, Denver City Council voted 9-3 to send a proposed initiative that would have required a vote of the people whenever the city intended to lift a conservation easement back to committee, ensuring that the measure won't make the November ballot.

"I want Northeast Park Hill to determine what happens to that park," Councilman Chris Herndon, whose northeast Denver district includes the 155-acre property, said during the meeting. "If they were to say, 'I want 155 acres of open space,' rest assured, I would be their biggest champion of that. And if they were to want something else, I would continue to be the biggest champion of that."

Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca had brought the initiative to council after its proponents determined that trying to collect signatures during the COVID-19 pandemic would be too risky. The campaign to give voters the right to vote on such easements, Save Open Space Denver, was a direct response to the sale of the century-old Park Hill Golf Club by the George W. Clayton Trust to a development company last summer.

Decades ago, the city had planned to purchase the golf course using $2 million generated by a 1989 bond measure from the trust, which is managed by Clayton Early Learning, a nonprofit that caters to low-income children and runs a preschool and educational research institute. When the money wasn't enough to cover the purchase, the city instead paid that amount in exchange for a conservation easement that limited potential uses of the land.

In 1997, during Wellington Webb's tenure as mayor, Denver City Council passed the measure establishing the conservation easement. But over the years, interpretations of that easement have varied: Some say it prevents the land from being used for anything other than a park, while others say it must remain a golf course.

In July 2019, Westside Investment Partners bought the property for $24 million from the trust.

"We acknowledge that there needs to be a park here, and we’ve already committed to at least a sixty-acre park," Kenneth Ho, the project lead at Westside, told Westword last year. "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." Among the things it wanted to do, Ho said, was build affordable housing. But some neighbors worried that the development would take away too much valuable open space.

The original version of the initiative, first presented to a council committee in May, had sought to give approval power to Denver voters over any cancellation of a conservation easement that protected open space, or whenever the city wanted to allow residential or commercial development on land designated for parks.

During that committee hearing, councilmembers pointed out that under current city rules, any land designated as park land must stay that way unless voters approve a sale by the city. Conservation easements, on the other hand, can be lifted by council. The committee voted 6-5 to forward the initiative to the Finance and Governance Committee, but the proposed charter change regarding conservation easements stalled there.

CdeBaca ended up direct-filing an initiative proposal that focused specifically on conservation easements to be considered at the August 24 council meeting — the last chance to get it on the November ballot. But while the initiative had support from the Greater Park Hill registered neighborhood organization, many other residents of the area had not weighed in.

"Our biggest concern is we feel that we haven't been at the table. Nobody has come to us and asked our opinion. We have not been able to voice our concerns or be part of the process," Stephanie Syner, a ten-year resident of Northeast Park Hill, said during last night's council meeting.

The initiative did have the support of prominent Denver politicians, including Webb and former state legislator and recent mayoral candidate Penfield Tate III, both of whom want to see the golf course remain as open space.

"Our hope is that the city will, in the future, look for more opportunities to acquire more conservation easements and open space...we wanted a mechanism in place," Tate had told Westword, explaining why the initiative focused on conservation easements in general, rather than just the Park Hill Golf Club property.

But the discussion at last night's meeting was all about the Park Hill property.

John McGrath, a lawyer with the Denver City Attorney's Office, had analyzed the original conservation easement language and concluded that the land must be used mainly as a golf course. "Golf is the beyond primary — it’s really the exclusive use of the property. There are incidental uses that would be permitted, but no use that would prohibit the use as a golf course," McGrath told councilmembers during the meeting.

That's no consolation for people who are still concerned about the scale of any Westside project...and the price the developer paid for the property. "It is the quintessential sweetheart deal. The land is worth well over a billion dollars," CdeBaca said during the meeting.

Westside also got $6 million from the city for use of part of the property for the Platte to Park Hill stormwater detention project.

A handful of those on council have already said they'd like to keep the conservation easement in place, which would definitely limit the type of development that Westside envisions. "I don’t have any interest in lifting this easement," said Councilwoman Jamie Torres. Members Debbie Ortega and Amanda Sandoval expressed the same sentiment.

Westside representatives say the company now plans to work with neighbors and Denver's Department of Community Planning and Development and neighbors over the next months, pandemic permitting, to create a small-area plan for the land and surrounding areas.

This was the second week in a row that CdeBaca failed to get an initiative on the ballot.

Last week, her proposed initiatives seeking to abolish the Denver Police Department and give council power to approve the appointment of the independent monitor and the city attorney also failed to get the required buy-in from councilmembers. In the case of the DPD proposal, in particular, councilmembers also complained about the lack of time to discuss the proposal and collect input from constituents.
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