The Denver City Attorney’s Office and developer Westside Investments released details today, November 5, of a settlement agreement the parties have reached concerning the highly contentious Park Hill Golf Course. The future of the property now rests on whether a conservation easement put on the land in 1997 can be lifted, and whether Westside, its owner, can garner community support for a future that includes development amid opposition from residents and politicians who take a hardline stance that the land should only be open space.
The settlement arose from an earlier stage in the golf course's history, when the educational nonprofit Clayton Early Learning still owned the property and leased it to Arcis Golf. In early 2019 — amid a squabble between the city, Arcis, Clayton and residents over a potential sale of the golf course that eventually fell through — the city took over 35 acres of the land to use for its also controversial stormwater detention project. Four holes were torn up, leaving the golf course out of commission. Arcis sued the city, claiming that the project had damaged the property without the consent of, or due compensation to, Arcis.
In July, Clayton sold the property to Westside for $24 million. Westside paid Arcis an undisclosed amount to take over the lawsuit, as well as a previous suit from 2018, in which Arcis had claimed its right to buy the property.
The settlement that was announced at the beginning of October and fully released today is attached at the bottom of this article. It addresses not only the stormwater detention question, but also outlines a process to determine the future of the property, including a conservation easement that currently prohibits any development or change from its current use. According to the settlement, the city will now pay Westside $6 million to compensate for damages to the property from the stormwater detention project; the money will come out of the Platte to Park Hill land condemnation fund.
The settlement also stipulates that Westside cannot terminate the conservation easement by claiming that the stormwater detention project scarred the land so as to make it impossible for it to remain a golf course, which was a strategy open-space advocates had thought Westside might pursue.
The settlement gives Westside three years to come up with a plan for the property. If the company can't remove the conservation easement in three years, the city could mandate that Westside restore the property to a golf course.
The unusual conservation easement that Mayor Wellington Webb’s administration put on the property in 1997 might still be very difficult to undo. SOS Denver, the main group opposing development on the site, announced on October 22 that it had discovered a minor update in the state statute concerning conservation easements, which changes the way that they can be terminated. SOS Denver argues that the update requires that a court must decide on the conservation easement before it can be lifted.
Ryan Luby, a spokesperson for the city attorney's office, says that the city does not believe that to be the case. A "Frequently Asked Questions" sheet issued by the city attorney's office states that it believes it can comply with the state statute by "following a city-led public engagement process with affirmative support from city council." If courts challenge that, it hints, the city could fight back with litigation.
While SOS Denver and its supporters argue that the conservation easement can and should be used to transform the land into a park, city attorneys point to the plain language of the conservation easement, which stipulates that the land must remain a golf course. The settlement even refers to the conservation easement as a "golf course use restriction." In other words, the city argues that as long as the conservation easement remains in place, there can be no other future for the land.
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Westside Investment principal Kenneth Ho says that the company now intends to carry out a community engagement process. "We’ve already met with over 100 community members...but this allows us to continue that dialogue and listen to the community," he says. "We’re all about engagement and listening. And we think that in the past there’s been a small number of voices in the community that have been able to speak very loudly. We don’t think that they’ve been operating with the facts. We need to operate within the actual legal constraints of the property, not the ones imagined." Westside argues that "we can do better" than "dump 106 million gallons of water on a golf course" and "provide golf for a select few, inaccessible for the many."
"I think it’s a sad thing that there’s even talk about doing something that would change the open space of that land that we purchased in 1997," says Woody Garnsey, a leader of SOS Denver. He'd like to see the city purchase the land and turn it into a park. "I don’t think there’s a legitimate basis for putting the public through three years of visioning process where [Westside] would drag out people that they would recruit to support them."
However, not all Park Hill residents feel that way. Imam Abdur-Ahim Ali, the director of the Northeast Denver Islamic Center, says SOS Denver is missing the mark by writing off potential uses like affordable housing and a grocery store. "I agree there should be a portion that should be open space, but we need to have some place for people to be able to live in this neighborhood that’s affordable," he says. "It defies logic to think that with 1,000 people a month moving to Denver, that you’re just gonna have open space, particularly when you have a golf course on 26th and Colorado, and right across the street you have City Park."