Hentzell Park: Court rejects appeal of land swap

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The Colorado Court of Appeals has rejected efforts by a group of park lovers to stop construction of a new school on eleven acres of open space in the Cherry Creek corridor -- land that the city designated as a natural area six years ago but that the Hancock administration declared was "blighted" and has traded to the Denver Public Schools in exchange for an office building near downtown. That sets the stage for a trial next spring challenging the legality of the land swap -- and a ballot campaign to protect other parcels of open space from the threat of development.

The grassroots group Friends of Denver Parks has been battling the mayor for months over the controversial land deal, gathering testimony from historians and nearby residents and other evidence to support the contention that the Hentzell Park Natural Area in southeast Denver has been treated as a "common law park," even though never officially designated as a park by city ordinance. The group recently released a video denouncing the city's "abduction" of the park and a statement from former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb in support of their cause.

But in upholding the denial of a preliminary injunction that would halt the construction, the Court of Appeals found the parcel's status to be ambiguous at best. While various city officials have made statements over the years indicating that the area is "park land," and even went to the trouble of declaring it to be one of the last vestiges of a prairie ecosystem anywhere in Denver, the city also constructed a parking lot on two acres of the property at one point and leased it to a commercial entity. The city's attorneys contend that because the city council never formally designated the area a park by ordinance, it can be traded to DPS in exchange for a building that Mayor Hancock wants to convert into a one-stop service center for domestic violence victims.

But many of Denver's parks have, in fact, never been officially declared to be parks -- an oversight that Denver Parks and Recreation managers are now scrambling to correct. John Case, attorney for Friends of Denver Parks, recently announced that in the coming year the group will launch "a ballot initiative to confer official park status on the numerous parks in Denver that the city has neglected to designate by ordinance. The ballot initiative, if successful, will protect Denver's remaining 'undesignated' parks from commercial development and preserve them as open space."

Case, who's put in many pro bono hours in the lawsuit challenging the city's move, says he has his law partners' blessing to appeal the latest setback to the Colorado Supreme Court. Whether the opponents of the swap are able to halt construction in the interim or not, a trial on the case is scheduled for next May. Have a tip? Send it to editorial@westword.com.

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