Denver Court Dismisses Park Hill Golf Course Lawsuit | Westword

Denver Judge Dismisses Park Hill Golf Course Lawsuit

The fight over the 155 acres remains heated.
The sun never sets on the battle over the Park Hill Golf Course.
The sun never sets on the battle over the Park Hill Golf Course. Amy Harris
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The sun never sets on the fight over the fate of the Park Hill Golf Course.

On February 10, a Denver District Court judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Save Open Space Denver, a group trying to prevent development of the now-closed Park Hill Golf Course, saying that the plaintiffs lack standing.

"There is no indication in the language of the amended statute itself, nor have Plaintiffs pointed to any other authority, indicating that the legislature intended that taxpayers of a governmental holder of a conservation easement would have a private right of action to require the governmental entity to seek such an order if it was disinclined to do so," Judge Ross B.H. Buchanan wrote in his order dismissing the complaint.

Save Open Space Denver and fifteen plaintiffs, including such prominent Save Open Space Denver members as former mayor Wellington Webb and former state legislator Penfield Tate, filed the lawsuit in June 2021. Their complaint named the City of Denver, Mayor Michael Hancock and Community Planning and Development Executive Director Laura Aldrete as defendants. Westside Investment Partners, the development company that purchased the defunct golf course property from the George W. Clayton Trust for $24 million in 2019, was not named; Westside hopes to build a mixed-use development on the property.

There's a conservation easement on the property, however, put there during the Webb administration, and that easement would need to be lifted before any development could happen. Westside and the City of Denver contend that the conservation easement only allows for an eighteen-hole golf course as a primary use on the property, while Save Open Space Denver argues that the easement allows for general open-space uses. SOS Denver wants to see the property turned into a city park.

The lawsuit asked a judge to rule that the defendants had 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 sought to have a judge order the city to stop all planning work associated with the property unless the city obtained a court order terminating the easement.

Between the filing of the lawsuit and the judge's February 10 ruling, Denver voters approved Initiative 301, which was placed on the ballot by SOS Denver. I-301 requires a citywide vote — rather than just a vote by Denver City Council — on any proposal to lift the conservation easement that currently rests on the 155-acre Park Hill Golf Course property. And while voters approved I-301, they rejected a defensive ballot measure pushed by Westside that would have exempted that property from the provisions of the Save Open Space Denver initiative if it passed.

But while Save Open Space Denver won at the ballot box, it's now lost in the courts, allowing the City of Denver to continue moving forward with a planning process that has already generated significant opposition from SOS Denver.

In January, top-ranking Hancock administration officials notified SOS Denver that the organization would lose its seat on a city-organized steering committee looking at the future of the property after SOS Denver member Sandy Robnett stepped down because of work constraints. Save Open Space Denver was set to replace her with Lisa Calderón, who ran against Hancock in the 2019 mayoral race — but city officials rejected the change and decided to ax SOS Denver's designated seat altogether.

"Save our Open Space has stated their opposition to this process in a number of formats, making the steering committee an inappropriate venue for their continued participation. The city believes there are other venues, such as focus groups or similar sessions, where Save Our Open Space can engage with city planners on SOS’s vision for the park space component, if the group wishes. The city remains open to and invites this input," says Laura Swartz, a spokesperson for the Department of Community Planning and Development.

But SOS Denver's Maria Flora calls the move "yet another example of developer-driven planning at City Hall."

In his ruling, Judge Buchanan also determined that the plaintiffs were not entitled to the relief they had requested, even if they had been found to have standing.

"While we are disappointed by Judge Buchanan’s decision, we are not going to be deterred in our fight to let the people decide what happens to the Park Hill Golf Course land, not a developer and not a city run by developers,” says Tate. “To be painted by the city as a group of people fighting to save a defunct golf course is just more of the same false rhetoric. We are fighting to preserve the land consistent with the open space and recreational conservation purposes of the conservation easement.”

Meanwhile, the city is taking the judge's decision as a victory. "A core function of local government as a steward of the public lands is to seek input from the community on how they want that land used,” City Attorney Kristin Bronson says in a statement. "The public process to this point has found near-universal support for discontinuing the operation of a functionally obsolete golf course on this land. If and when it is determined that a change of use is appropriate, the community will have an opportunity to weigh in on that decision through their elected officials and a direct vote. Narrowly-focused organizations that purport to represent the community are no substitute for the city’s broad-based, extensive, and fair community outreach effort."

Here is the judge's order:
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