Friday, November 9, 2012

Parks Board delays vote, seeks more information

Special to Denver Direct
By Dave Felice
Collectively saying they didn’t have enough information, members of Denver’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB) are postponing a decision on a city property swap.  Some observers see the outcome as a setback to Mayor Michael B. Hancock’s effort to expedite the trade of park property in southeast Denver for an office building downtown owned by the school district.
After a lengthy public hearing and unusually vibrant discussion, most Advisory Board members decided to delay any decision 30 days.  During the extension, the Board will allow further written public comment and live comments at the next regular public PRAB meeting, prior to making a final recommendation to Parks and Recreation Manager Lauri Dannemiller.
The Board member who has a conflict of interest because he is the Bond Construction Director for Denver Public Schools did not vote.  However, James T. Allen did continue to sit at the Board table during the discussion.
Park advocate Joe Halpern successfully argued that under Natural Areas Rule 3.E, “written comments shall be accepted…for 30 days following the public hearing.”  Dannemiller complained that this rule didn’t require the Board to delay its vote.
There were only two public speakers in favor of the proposal to trade the downtown school building for nine acres of park land along South Hampden so an elementary school can be built on the site.
Representing the Audubon Society, Polly Reetz emphasized the importance of the natural park land, the actual value of a prairie dog community, and the diversity of wildlife.  Reetz, who lives in central Denver, said the trail in the natural area is important to all Denverites. 
Hampden Heights homeowner Steve Waldstein said he intentionally purchased his family home adjacent to the open space 13 years ago because the land provided a desirable natural environment.
Attorney and Capitol Hill resident Brad Cameron argued that the property trade would be a dangerous precedent.  Cameron also underscored the widespread use of the trail in the natural area.
Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation (INC) Vice President Cindy Johnstone noted that the INC Parks Committee had taken an informal position against the trade because building a school is contrary to the original purpose of a natural area.
A cadre of officials from the Denver School District paraded before the Parks Advisory Board to plead the case for a new elementary school in the area.
Several Board members made it clear that they would vote against the recommendation, even after the 30 day public comment period.  Observers said Board members Mary Ewing, Noel Copeland, and Darrell Watson were particularly eloquent. 
Nearly every Board member seemed to find DPR’s public outreach and notice to be insufficient, and several said that DPS and DPR also failed to provide adequate information to the Board.
Dannemiller said Parks had given adequate notice, and she read aloud from the revised version of the memo on DPR’s website that said “9 acres.”  From the audience, Halpern loudly challenged the assertion, stating “that document said only 5.7 acres when it was first posted—it was changed later!” 
Ewing asked that additional information be posted promptly on the DPR website, including the original 2007 Management Plan for Hentzell Park Natural Area.
Even the PRAB member for Councilwoman Peggy Lehman’s 4th District, Anne Green, said she could not vote on the merits at this stage, given the incomplete information the Board had received, and very late in the process.  
Some Board members said it’s not their job to advocate for DPS, but rather to advocate for and be stewards of Denver’s scarce parkland.


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