Hentzell Park: Did Denver officials ignore law in land swap?

A lawsuit filed by a citizens' group, seeking to put the brakes on a plan by Denver city officials to swap an open space area in the Cherry Creek corridor for an office building, contends that Mayor Michael Hancock's administration has violated a provision of the city charter that prohibits selling park land without a vote of the people. It's the city's position that the land in question was never designated a park. But the deal's opponents say that public records suggest otherwise.

As we've previously reported, Hancock wants to turn over 11.5 acres of city property in a formerly designated "natural area" adjoining Paul A. Hentzell Park in southeast Denver to the Denver Public Schools. DPS wants to build an elementary school there to take the pressure off overcrowded schools in the area. In return, the city would take over a DPS building at 13th and Fox and convert it to a "family justice center," housing various agencies that provide services to domestic violence victims.

Overruling the recommendation of her own advisory board, Denver Parks and Recreation manager Lauri Dannemiller agreed to formally remove the "natural area" designation for the site, which Hancock has described as "blighted" and overrun with prairie dogs; about two acres of the site is currently a parking lot.

The Denver City Council approved the deal in April. But critics of the transaction, including some residents of the area and former park officials, say the site is one of the last remnants of a prairie ecosystem in the city limits and a haven for wildlife. And last month a newly formed group called Friends of Denver Parks launched a petition drive to put the matter to a public vote. After Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson rejected the paperwork for the referendum drive, the group sued Johnson and the city.

Plaintiffs' attorney John Case points to a section of the city charter that prohibits the sale or transfer of park land acquired before 1955 without a vote of the people. The site is part of what Case refers to as "Hampden Heights North Park," the title to which was acquired by the City of Denver in 1937. And while city officials have maintained that the area never was granted formal park status, Case cites case law to the effect that "parks may be dedicated by common law usage, and that city officials hold title to park property as trustees in trust for the benefit of the people who elect them. "

"Hampden Heights North Park was acquired before 1955, and has been used continuously as a park ever since," Case says.

If the courts agree with Case's interpretation, then the city may be compelled to put the issue to a popular vote -- even if the petition drive to force such a vote doesn't succeed.

Below is a copy of the deed the opponents are relying on to prove the existence of a park that city officials say was never in their inventory.

Hampden Heights North Park Deed

More from our Politics archive: "Hentzell Park flap: Should Denver trade open space for offices?"

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast