When does a park become a park? Is it when people start using it for recreation and picnics? When the area starts showing up on maps labeled as a park? When the Mayor of Denver describes it as "dedicated park land," while assuring nearby homeowners it won't be developed? Or is it when the city starts to maintain it, build trails on it and post signs about observing park rules?
None of the above, apparently. Not according to Denver District Court Judge Herbert Stern III -- who, practically on the eve of trial, dismissed the case a grass-roots parks group had brought challenging the city's decision to transfer eleven acres of open space in the Cherry Creek corridor in exchange for an office building downtown.
Mayor Michael Hancock's plan to hand over the property adjacent to Paul A. Hentzell Park to the Denver Public Schools for a new school, in exchange for a DPS administration building that's now being converted to a one-stop services center for domestic violence victims, has triggered a slew of questions about how the city officially designates -- and protects -- its parks. Although the property was officially declared a "natural area" just a few years ago, Hancock insisted that it was "blighted;" Denver Parks and Recreation manager Lauri Dannemiller withdrew the natural area designation, and the Denver City Council approved the deal last spring.
But the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Friends of Denver Parks, have maintained that the area is essentially a "common law park" -- and the city can't dispose of park land without a vote of the people. Even as DPS proceeded to exterminate prairie dogs and begin construction on the site, the group brought in experts to testify about the historic use of the area as a park and about various representations by city officials and on maps that refer to the area as a park.
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Attorneys for the city insist that the area was never officially designated as a park by ordinance. In granting the city's motion for summary judgment, Judge Stern acknowledged that "the public has viewed the land as a park and recreated on it," and that the city has put up signs referring to "park rules" and even labeled it as a park on some city maps. But such actions fall short of "unambiguous actions" that would demonstrate that officials "unequivocally intended to dedicate the property as a park."
"In making this ruling, the Court understands that Plaintiffs feel blindsided by a less than transparent City administration," Stern wrote.
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The ruling heads off a trial that was scheduled to begin later this month. Friends of Denver Parks attorney John Case said the group would appeal Stern's ruling and is also working on a ballot initiative that would help protect other public properties that might be in jeopardy of sale. "We want to make sure that what happened here does not happen again," Case said.
Read Stern's decision in its entirety below.
More from our Follow That Story archive circa December 2013: "Video: Former parks official denounces open space 'heist.'"