Denver Voters Will Decide Several Hot-Button Issues in November

Denver will have a stacked ballot in November.
Denver will have a stacked ballot in November. Shutterstock file photo
Despite being an off election year, Denver's November ballot will be packed with measures tied to hot-button issues.

So far, five proposals touching on everything from homelessness to the potential development of the Park Hill Golf Course site to the pandemic have landed on the ballot. Dark money has funded some of the campaigns pushing these measures; others have had more transparent support.

Here's a roundup of what you'll see on the Denver ballot this fall:

Park Hill Golf Course proposal

The citizen advocacy group Save Open Space Denver has been pushing to block potential development of the Park Hill Golf Course, a 155-acre property that once held the now-defunct Park Hill Golf Club. Counting former mayor Wellington Webb and former state lawmaker Penfield Tate among its members, SOS Denver would like to see the land turned into a municipal park. If the group's initiative — official name: Parks and Open Space Preservation — passes and a dueling initiative doesn't pass, Denver voters would get a chance to determine whether the city can lift a conservation easement that rests on the property, which would allow for potential development. SOS Denver argues that even with the conservation easement in place, the land could still become a public park.

Another Park Hill Golf Course proposal

Westside Investment Partners, the company that purchased the Park Hill Golf Course from the Clayton Trust for $24 million in 2019, funded a campaign to land an initiative — official name: City Park Land and City Property Protected by a Conservation Easement — that mirrors the SOS Denver initiative, except that it exempts the Park Hill Golf Course from the SOS Denver initiative stipulations requiring a vote of the people to lift a conservation easement. Westside, which wants to construct a mixed-use development on the property, spent over a quarter-million dollars on signature-gathering for the initiative, and it was money well spent: The initiative was approved for the ballot this week. If it passes — and even if the SOS Denver initiative is approved — no vote of the people would be required to lift the conservation easement. Instead, Denver City Council could remove it with a court's okay, creating a path toward developing the property.

Safe and Sound Denver

In February, Denver City Council voted 11-2 to approve a major overhaul to the group-living aspects of the Denver Zoning Code. The package raised the number of unrelated adults who can live together in the same home from two to five, and also made it easier for service providers and community corrections workers to set up homeless shelters, sober-living homes and halfway houses throughout Denver. But this spring, some Denver residents who'd fiercely opposed the zoning code changes and coalesced into the advocacy group Safe and Sound Denver created a referendum to overturn the zoning changes, arguing that the package threatened the character and safety of neighborhoods. With the help of $90,000 from dark-money group Defend Colorado, the group collected enough signatures to put the repeal referendum on the ballot.

Homeless encampments

Denver Republican Party chair Garrett Flicker has been pushing two initiatives. One would require the city to set up safe-camping sites, a concept first implemented in Denver last December, and would also give residents the right to file formal challenges when the city does not enforce the urban camping ban: If the city fails to respond to a complaint within 72 hours, the person who filed the complaint could sue. Flicker contends that the initiative is not focused on sweeps in public areas, but "specifically for private property." However, as the initiative is written, "the enforcement mechanism clearly applies to camping on public land along with private land," according to Andy McNulty, a Killmer, Lane and Newman attorney who filed a lawsuit against the city in October 2020 on behalf of Denver Homeless Out Loud and multiple homeless plaintiffs who oppose sweeps. "It is a poorly drafted ordinance that will cost the city millions of dollars and do nothing to solve our homelessness crisis," adds McNulty, who refers to the initiative as a "publicity stunt" by Flicker. The campaign received $117,500 from Defend Colorado, which helped fund the effort to collect enough signatures to land the proposal on the ballot.

Marijuana money for pandemic research

Guarding Against Pandemics, a group registered in Delaware, has spent over $440,000 to get an initiative on the November ballot that would add 1.5 percent to the Denver marijuana sales tax and use the money generated from that increase to fund pandemic research at the University of Colorado Denver CityCenter.  "Guarding Against Pandemics has no financial connection to the University of Colorado Denver CityCenter and will not financially benefit from any funding in the ballot measure. The support is purely philanthropic," says Gabe Claeson, an experienced Denver canvasser who ran the campaign. Marijuana industry groups oppose the measure, as do consumers who already complain about the cannabis tax rate. Meanwhile, Colorado State University just received a $2 million commitment from the Anschutz Foundation for research to prevent future pandemics.

What's next

The ballot will almost definitely grow, as Denver City Council has until the end of August to refer a handful of measures to voters, including proposals related to elections, the Office of the Independent Monitor, and bond packages.

And GOP chair Flicker is still waiting to hear whether his other initiative, which would decrease the city sales tax rate from 4.81 percent to 4.5 percent and cap it there, collected enough signatures to land on the ballot. That sales tax initiative campaign was funded by another $117,500 from Defend Colorado.

Save plenty of time to fill out that November 2 ballot!
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.