Monday, May 12, 2014

Barnes-Gelt: The hinky history of Denver's land swap

Early this month, following more than a year of political shenanigans, civic and media consternation, lawsuits and failed appeals, Denver District Court Judge Herbert Stern affirmed the legality of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock's decision to transfer 11 acres of open space in southeast Denver to Denver Public Schools for a new elementary school.
In exchange for the acreage and $710,000, the city got an obsolete DPS building in the Golden Triangle that will house a domestic violence center for women.
No one disputes the value of a new elementary school or a domestic violence center. At issue is how the city administration managed the deal. To recap:
In late 2012, Lauri Dannemiller, manager of Parks and Recreation, asked her 18-member advisory board to approve the swap and de-designate 9 acres of Hentzell Park as open space and the adjacent 2½ acres as a parking lot. The board opposed the measure, 11-6. The board, charged with oversight and stewardship of Denver's treasured parks and open space, was chagrined when Dannemiller overruled the majority opinion.

At an April 2013 City Council meeting, councilors voted 10-3 to support the land swap.
Then, a group of Denver residents incorporated Friends of Denver Parks for the purpose of protecting Denver's parks and natural areas. Their first order of business: collect 6,500 signatures to put the deal to a public vote. When City Clerk Debra Johnson refused to certify the petition, Friends of Denver Parks took the case to court, seeking an injunction to preclude the transfer without first asking voters' permission. Park advocates reasoned, "If it looks, quacks and swims like a duck, it's a duck!"
The city disagreed. Regardless of political precedent and 75 years of use, the acreage was neither officially designated parkland nor did it meet the standards of common-law dedication. Denver's City Charter is a powerful instrument.
Judge Stern's four-page opinion affirming the mayor's charter authority to convey public land "upon such terms as in the Mayor's judgment appear proper" reiterates his June 2013 decision, reaffirmed by the Colorado Court of Appeals in December. In short, Friends' pro bono attorney John Case failed to prove Denver's "unequivocal intent" and "unambiguous actions" to dedicate Hentzell Park open space as a park.
Stern's opinion stipulates the accuracy of the Friends of Denver Parks' arguments:
• Prior to 1955, the land was used as open space, for horseback riding, picnics, bird-watching, etc. The public continues to view and use the land as a park. The parks department manages, maintains, identifies and regulates the site as designated open space.
• In 1976, Denver's planning staff told a prospective Hampden Heights homebuyer the parcel was a park.
• In 1979, Mayor Bill McNichols refused to sell the parcel to a private group wanting to develop a water park, saying it was "dedicated park land."
• Every map on the city's website, the department's comprehensive adopted master plan (Game Plan Denver) and 2010 zoning code represent the land as part of Denver's parks and open space system.
In addition, the department's 2007 Hentzell Park Management Plan recommends the entire parcel's designation as a conservation restoration natural area.
"In making this ruling," Judge Stern wrote, "the court understands that plaintiffs feel blindsided by a less-than-transparent city administration." Amen.
Civic activist Susan Barnes-Gelt can be reached at barnes gelt@ gmail. com or @SBGtweets.


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