Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Hentzell Park Natural Area decision unjustified

Analysis and commentary
by Dave Felice

Denver Parks and Recreation Manager Laurie Dannemiller uses misleading arguments in her decision to give up nine acres of Hentzell Park Natural Area for a school building site. The fundamental aspect of the decision is the destruction of rare, valuable, and irreplaceable natural land.  The decision is compounded by the secrecy and deception of the city and school district administration.

Parks now steps away from the final determination.  “To be clear, the recommendation Manager Dannemiller made is not going to City Council for approval.  The Land Swap Agreement before City Council is going to be led by the Denver Real Estate Office,” says Angela Casias, a spokesperson for Parks.

In exchange for the park land, the city would get a school office building at 13th and Fox to assist victims of domestic violence.

It is very difficult to stay objective on this matter.  People throughout the city are distraught and traumatized by the decision.  The level of emotion almost rivals that of the ban on outdoor sleeping.

Many Denverites and members of the Parks and Recreation Board, while acknowledging the decision posed a dilemma, saw that preservation and protection of the natural area is not at odds with victims’ assistance, education, or even budgetary considerations. 
Instead, as many Parks Board members stated at the public meeting December 13, it is inappropriate to view these as mutually exclusive options that are in competition with each other.  There is no evidence that the city has exhausted all other possible efforts to fund acquisition of the building desired for the victims’ service center, or that Denver Public Schools (DPS) has considered all options available to it, including exercising condemnation powers to acquire a commercial site for redevelopment as a school.
The decision, in fact, is wrong and is bad public policy.  It sets an extremely dangerous precedent that the administration can do what it wants with public lands and that loss of natural park land is not important.
Parks and Recreation Manager Lauri Dannemiller’s assertion that the nine acres in question should be viewed as a stand-alone tract is completely at odds with the detailed findings in the Hentzell Park Natural Area Management Plan.  This plan served as the basis for the Parks Advisory Board’s unanimous vote in 2007 to designate the natural area, and the then-manager’s decision to adopt the board’s recommendation.  As the Management Plan made clear, these nine acres, on the south side of Cherry Creek, have important natural values (including natural vegetation and native seeds for plains species found almost nowhere else in Denver) deserving of preservation and restoration.
Mayor Michael B. Hancock’s letter stating that this area is “blighted” represents complete ignorance of the essential character of any undeveloped natural area.   It also ignores the Hentzell Park Management Plan’s carefully conceived multi-year plan for preservation and restoration of the natural area—a plan that unfortunately was not carried out because of the city’s severe budget cuts in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008.  In other words, the city’s own inaction has resulted in this area not achieving its full potential as a refuge for native vegetation and species. 
As many people have said, the area was supposed to be restored, and just because the city didn't have the money in 2008-2012 to do the job, the claim by Parks now that the land has no significant natural area values is a circular and cynical argument.  
Dannemiller’s after-the-fact rationale that there is no “no net loss” is also specious.  She never stated, in any of her communications with the board or the public prior to issuance of her decision on January 2, 2013, that her entire analysis would be driven by the Parks Department’s acquisition of adequate parkland elsewhere to offset this loss of acreage. 
Moreover, all parkland is not fungible.  Each tract has attributes unique to its setting and characteristics, and to the citizens who view it as special.  Would Dannemiller argue that it would be acceptable to sell off Cheesman Park for commercial or residential development if the city acquired an equal number of acres of parkland elsewhere?
Councilwoman Peggy Lehmann’s suggestion of dedicating that remaining 15 acres is nothing more than appeasement.  If the remaining acreage has value, one cannot claim that the lost area does not have the same value.
Further, to say that adding natural area acreage to Heron Pond is an adequate substitute for destroying Hentzell Park Natural Area is a false comparison.  Heron Pond is a reclaimed polluted Superfund site, only made acceptable for public use by scraping away and replacing 12 or more inches of top soil, and with it any native vegetation that may have existed on the site.  By contrast, both the Hentzell Park Management Plan and Gayle Weinstein, former naturalist for Denver Parks and Recreation, confirm that the intact soil at Hentzell Park contains precious native prairie grasses and seed.
Dannemiller’s written decision makes a mockery of public process and the purpose behind the charter-created Parks Advisory Board.  The mayor and DPS made their deal long before the matter came to public attention, and then sought ratification of their plan with as little public notice and hearing as possible.  Despite inadequate notice, there was an outpouring of public comment in opposition to the plan at two separate meetings of the Parks Advisory Board.  Nevertheless, neither this citizen involvement nor the Parks Board’s 11-6 vote to retain designation of the Natural Area had any impact on Dannemiller’s decision.
Dannemiller falsely claims in her decision that there was confusion at the Parks Advisory board’s December 13 meeting about DPS’s need for the Natural Area property as a school building site.  The board had before it a written communication from Benita Duran in the DPS superintendent’s office stating that “we cannot guarantee [either an ECE center or elementary school] nor the timing” and all plans would be placed on hold “if population shifts dramatically.”   
Therefore, the School District has made no commitment to actually build a school on the Hentzell property.  In fact, some members of the School Board question the wisdom of even suggesting that the site – in a flood plain and next to a busy highway – is appropriate for a school.  Dannemiller attempted to disguise DPS’s complete lack of any concrete commitment by soliciting and attaching to her decision a new letter from the DPS superintendent dated December 20, 2012.  Note that nowhere in that letter does the Superintendent Tom Boasberg confirm that a school will in fact be built on the Hentzell Park land.  Instead, he states only that “this land will only be used for school purposes”—an ambiguous, legally nonbinding assertion offered to counter concerns by the parks advisory board that DPS is simply “warehousing” this land on speculation. 
Dannemiller can no longer be trusted as Manager of Parks.  She shows herself to be a political agent.  The honorable thing to do would be to request reassignment, or resign altogether.  There is a complete lack of confidence in her ability to function as steward of public lands. 
In supporting the decision, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL) must have some political motivation for a breach of fiduciary responsibility.  Only a few years ago, TPL said Denver was sorely deficient in per capita park and open space, yet now TPL says it’s acceptable to give up natural open land.
Councilwoman Peggy Lehmann supports the swap, and, by tradition, Council usually approves a matter affecting a specific district.  Approving the exchange, Council would tacitly condone all the egregious questionable behavior surrounding the scheme.
Council must act in two ways:
1.  Refuse to transfer the Hentzell land to DPS, and declare that the natural area should remain part of Denver’s parks system; and,
2.  Designate ALL of Hentzell Park, including ALL of the Designated Natural Area, as a designated park that will then be subject to the Charter’s Section 2.4.5 requiring public vote on sale or lease.


  1. I think that it is sad that some of the land is being taken away, but I also think it is being replaced for a better cause. This will give more teachers jobs and it will also help young students who need help dealing with tough issues. I think in this situation, you have o think about others.