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Denver voters may face dueling ballot measures

By Bruce Finley

The Denver Post

Denver voters may face dueling ballot measures in November that each would require citywide majority approval before city leaders could try to allow development on protected green space.

One measure would prohibit commercial and housing construction without voter approval on any parks and city-owned land protected by a conservation easement, including the 155-acre former Park Hill Golf Course, where development has been blocked since 1997.

A countermeasure that also has cleared initial review, put forward by the Westside Investment Partners developers who own the Park Hill land, would change the definition of “conservation easement” to make an exception for this property — and could apply to other protected open space.

State law governs conservation easements and lifting restrictions requires a state court order. A state judge first must determine conservation is impossible. Nevertheless, Denver officials have launched a planning process exploring mixed-use commercial and housing development on the Park Hill land.

“This reflects a city that is growing and changing very rapidly, which makes battles over remaining open space all the more challenging for those fighting for the green space and those who want to see development on that green space,” said Jim Petterson, Colorado director of the Trust for Public Land, which hasn’t taken a position on the Park Hill property but advocates for equal access to nature.

“The lifting of a conservation easement,” Petterson said, “should be very rare and very carefully thought through. That’s why the state law is in place.”

Denver Elections Division officials granted approval Tuesday for Westside’s measure (“City Park Land and City Property Protected by a Conservation Easement”) so that signature-seeking can begin, division spokesman Alton Dillard said. It would redefine “conservation easement” as a restriction purchased for income tax credits.

The Save Open Space Denver group backing the first measure (“Parks and Open Space Preservation”) opposes development on the Park Hill land and has submitted 13,000 signatures. At least 9,184 must be validated for the measure to be on ballots.

Around Denver, green space hasn’t kept pace with population growth and development. About 8% of Denver is designated as parks, compared with 20% and greater in other large U.S. cities.

Denver voters increasingly have used ballot measures to demand green space. In 2017, voters ordered rooftop vegetation on large buildings. In 2018, they approved an open space tax that raises $37 million a year for parks.

But city officials haven’t acquired significant new acreage. The Park Hill land stands out as Denver’s largest open property. It is located in northeast Denver, south of Interstate 70 and east of Colorado Boulevard, in an area that city maps identify as relatively deficient in park space and where heat islands amplify temperatures.

Denver taxpayers in 1997 financed a $2 million easement under Mayor Wellington Webb to protect that land. The purpose was to ensure “open space” and “continued existence and operation of a regulation-length 18-hole daily fee public golf course,” records show, with uses specified as golf-oriented activities and “such unrelated recreational uses such as ball fields, tennis courts, etc.”

Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration has interpreted this language as allowing only a golf course, while SOS Denver attorneys argue a new public park would fit the open space and recreational purpose.

Since February, Denver officials and Westside have been convening residents who live within a few blocks of the land and asking what they would like to see. Westside officials have proposed a mix of retail, residential and other development while leaving 60% of the land open.

Conservation easements in Denver also protect parts of the city’s Heron Pond natural area, Confluence Park and Cranmer Park, said Tony Caligiuri, director of Colorado Open Lands, a land conservation group that buys easements, including some that don’t involve income tax credits.

Denver taxpayers’ protection for the Park Hill land “looks like a solid easement,” and a state judge would have to rule conservation impossible, he said. “No matter how much planning Denver does, they’re still going to run up against that high bar.”

Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700, bfinley@denverpost.com or @finleybruce

“The lifting of a conservation easement, should be very rare and very carefully thought through. That’s why the state law is in place.”

Jim Petterson, Colorado director of the Trust for Public Land

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