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Most special elections are humdrum affairs involving bond issues and tax questions, but the one currently facing the citizens of Lakewood promises to be special indeed. At stake are two parcels of land on the southwestern edge of the city totaling less than fifty acres -- and a bitter debate about how best to preserve open space threatened by relentless growth.

Mail-in ballots are being sent out this week for the January 2 election. The only issue on the ballot is whether the city should trade 22 acres of Iron Spring Park to Carma Colorado, a developer that's building an 1,100-home, $550 million master-planned community along Alameda Parkway, for a 22-acre parcel owned by Carma east of the park. But beneath that simple proposition is a welter of questions about representative government, the sanctity of park land and the future of wildlife in the soon-to-be-urbanized Rooney Valley.

Proponents of the swap, including Lakewood mayor Steve Burkholder, say it will provide a buffer zone between Carma's enormous project (slated to host the 2008 Parade of Homes) and existing subdivisions, as well as preserve a popular hiking and biking area and "wildlife corridor" that links Green Mountain open space with parks to the south. Critics say it's not a fair trade because the city would be giving up pristine park land for a "drainage strip" that consists largely of a natural gulch.


Lakewood special election

The city's appraisal of the two parcels found that there was little difference in value between them, but that conclusion is hotly disputed by opponents of the swap, who say the appraiser failed to take into account the potential "developed value" of the Iron Spring property.

"If these two parcels were on the market today, they wouldn't sell for the same price," insists Rita Bertolli, a grassroots activist leading the opposition. "They want the park land because it's road-accessible, it has a view of Red Rocks and it's flat. When people see the ditch they want to give us in return, then they understand the issue."

Lakewood's planning commission and city council unanimously approved the swap last summer. Under the city charter, a sale of park land requires a public referendum, but a city attorney took the position that a trade didn't constitute a sale. Bertolli and other activists compelled the city to hold a special election anyway, gathering 4,000 signatures on petitions to challenge the council's decision. Lamenting the cost of the special election -- more than $200,000 -- and noting that planning for development in the Rooney Valley dates back decades, Mayor Burkholder blasted the petitioners for "abusing the process."

Bertolli, a University of Colorado film graduate turned gadfly, shrugs off the criticism. Although she won't turn 26 until next week, for the past three years she's battled to a standstill a more modest housing project in a ravine near her parents' home ("Open Spaced," February 19, 2004). She doesn't dispute Carma's right to build on its own property, she says, but planners should have brought citizens into the process before offering to give up land that's been deeded as a public park since the 1970s.

"Had we known about it ten years ago, we would have objected then," she says. "They only notified people adjacent to the swap area, who stand to benefit from this. If you're going to swap park land, which belongs to everyone in the city, don't you think you should notify everyone?"

The opponents' pointed questions at public meetings have prompted a couple of officials to have second thoughts about the deal. "Whatever my fellow city council people say, the land traded by the city and the land received are nowhere near comparable in value," says councilman Doug Anderson. "This was a bad negotiation."

On the opposition website, www.lakewoodvoter.org, Bertolli has posted photos contrasting the sweeping views of Red Rocks and Dinosaur Ridge available from the park with the stark gulch the citizens would receive in return, as well as some history of the Rooney Valley, dating back to the days when Alexander Rooney's ranch was visited by the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody and Teddy Roosevelt. "Don't Switch for the Ditch!" the site urges.

The website put up by a group favoring the swap, www.voteforrvos.org, doesn't mention the park land. Instead, it urges citizens to "protect forever a much-needed 22-acre wildlife and outdoor recreation corridor" that forms a bridge between Green Mountain and Bear Creek Lake Park. Lisa Scott, a proponent of the trade who lives just east of the Carma parcel, says the corridor is heavily used by area residents, many of whom don't even realize that it's private property.

"On the weekends, you will see hundreds of people out there," she says. "It's definitely the most popular off-leash area in Lakewood."

Mountain bikers also use the system of trails developed along the strip to go between Green Mountain and Coyote Gulch. At night and early in the morning, so do deer and elk. Preserving that open space "has been part of the master plan for our area for ten years," Scott notes. "I really believe it's much better for everyone than the reverse. This is the area that people use, the area that connects the parks. When the developer gets done, those parcels [in Iron Spring Park] are to be on either side of the entrance of their development. They're not going to be useful the way the corridor area is."

Ken Parks, a Littleton public-relations professional retained by Carma, points out that the city approached the developer about the deal, not the other way around. Since Carma's proposed development already designated more open space than city planners require, the land exchange seemed like the best way to acquire the corridor linking the parks. "The vast majority of the community wants that bridge," Parks says.

But some area residents would rather keep the park intact. "To give away land that's been given to the citizens is morally bankrupt," says Stephen Sumner, one of Scott's neighbors. Bertolli says that some development is already slated for other segments of the so-called wildlife corridor, including a ball field and a school. The real wildlife connection, she contends, is Iron Spring Park itself. And she questions the "precedent" of transferring public land to a private developer that was clearly deeded as a park by the donors a generation ago; at least two other proposed swaps of park land are currently under consideration in Lakewood.

"It's like the Wild West here," she sighs. "There's no reason to have a government if they're just going to do whatever they want with public land. If we can stop this swap, we save other parks -- because they know we won't stand for this."

Parks says Carma could build as many as 100 homes on the Iron Spring parcel. If voters don't approve the trade, the developer will build instead in the gulch area -- leading Bertolli to ask whether such a vital "wildlife corridor" would ever have been slated for development in the first place. She's incensed that public officials are endorsing the "Vote for Rooney Open Space" campaign when the campaign's website and fliers don't even acknowledge that a trade of public land is involved.

"They have the mayor's mug shot on their literature," she says. "I went to the last council meeting and said it was a shame that our city officials have become poster children for a multibillion-dollar Canadian development company, which is getting a parcel worth as much as $50 million for something that's worth far less."

The debate hit a flashpoint last week, shortly after Carma broke ground on the initial phase of its Solterra project, involving forty acres, ninety homesites in the $400,000 to $1 million range, and a community center. Bertolli fired off a press release claiming that the developer "went ahead and bulldozed the park." Parks denies this, saying that Carma is awaiting the outcome of the election before taking any action on the park parcel at issue. City Engineer Jay Hutchison says some of the grading involves a planned extension of Indiana Street through the park that's been in the works for some time.

But Bertolli insists that the grading south of the parkway extends farther than it should. "They're just banking on the fact we don't have the time and the money to go to court," she fumes.

Special elections are notorious for small turnouts, particularly when held around the holidays. "It's going to be a tiny turnout," Anderson predicts, "and that's unfortunate. Democracy works best when lots of people are involved."

The two sides are engaged in a battle of fliers at the moment. Bertolli is also involved in what she calls "opposition radio," a podcasting venture called Radio Free Lakewood that involves live broadcasts and commentary from city council meetings and sending citizens armed with digital recorders to confront developers at public hearings.

"The other side has a lot more money," she says, "but I think our argument is sound. There's no way this is an equal trade."

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