Save Open Space Sues Denver Over Park Hill Golf Course Land Development Efforts. High-Profile Plaintiffs Include Former Mayor Wellington Webb, Former Lawmakers, Community Leaders
By Cara DeGette
Highlighting ongoing collusion between the City and County of Denver and Westside Investment Partners over plans to develop the Park Hill Golf Course land, the citizens group Save Open Space Denver has filed a lawsuit seeking a court order to protect the conservation easement on the property.
The suit was filed in Denver District Court on June 23 against the City and County of Denver. Mayor Michael B. Hancock and Laura Aldrete, executive director of the city’s planning and development department, are also named.
SOS Denver alleges the City is wastefully spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a major planning and development process for land that, under Colorado law, cannot be developed without a court order.
“The City refuses to address the mandate of the Colorado conservation easement statute, so we’re seeking a court order that it must do so, now,” said Tony Pigford, one of 14 named plaintiffs.
The currently nonoperational golf course, in the northwest boundary of the Greater Park Hill neighborhood, has been protected by a conservation easement since 1997. The easement, which prohibits development, was re-recorded in July 2019, when the Glendale-based Westside Investment Partners bought the 155-acre parcel for $24 million. Westside principals were generous contributors to Hancock’s reelection that year.
Despite the conservation easement, Westside has indicated plans to develop the property. Last year, the city’s Planning and Development Department launched what it calls a “visioning” process, in conjunction with the developer, to proceed with a plan.
In the complaint, the plaintiffs allege the process “is effectively a real estate development joint venture project between the City and Westside Investment Partners,” which began shortly after Westside purchased the property. Westside is not a named defendant.
Among the supporting documents, obtained under the Colorado Open Records Act, is an internal email, dated Dec. 19, 2020, in which Aldrete, Denver’s director of planning and development, refers to Westside as the city’s “client.” Another example cited occurred during a January 2021 City Council Budget and Policy Committee meeting, during which Aldrete stated that the city’s planning and development process for the Park Hill Golf Course land is “market driven by a developer.”
“That planning and development process is intentionally directed toward an inevitable administrative outcome that ignores both the 2019 conservation easement and the requirements of [Colorado law], and it supports significant development on the land,” according to the complaint.
The suit goes on to highlight the numerous city departments and agencies that have provided “active support” in the process of planning the development of the protected property, including the Mayor’s office, the City Attorney’s office, the City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, the City’s Department of Finance, the City’s Office of Economic Development, the City’s Department of Housing Stability, the City’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, and the City’s Department of Public Health and Environment.
In all, the suit notes, at least 70 city employees have had some involvement in the planning and development process.
Plaintiffs say the work, on behalf of Westside, is designed to abrogate the conservation easement and ready the land for development.
“In a nutshell, Denver taxpayers purchased the conservation easement, which preserves open space and prevents development. Now, the city is using hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to pay for a process to develop the protected land,” said Pigford.
According to the lawsuit, the planning department has spent at least $280,000 so far in related third party contracts. Between Jan. 1, 2020 through April 9, 2021, city planning and development staff have spent at least 1,166 hours on the issue. “Work by [planning department] staff on this planning and development project has prevented these … employees from working on planning and development projects for land that can be legally developed,” the suit asserts.
The suit also details several contracts the City awarded as part of the ongoing development process, including to the Denver Foundation, the Equity Project LLC, and to the engineering and land development firm David Evans and Associates.
Also noted in the lawsuit is Denver’s rapidly decreasing parkland — only 5 percent of its land is currently used for parkland, compared to the 15 percent national median.
“All plaintiffs join in filing this lawsuit due to their desire to preserve the 2019 conservation easement for the critical purpose of protecting public health, the environment, and recreational benefits provided by the protected land to Denver and its citizens. Plaintiffs assert these public health, environmental, and recreational benefits become more critical each day.”
After the lawsuit was filed, the city released the following statement:
“The city’s planning department routinely embarks on community planning processes for large parcels of land in Denver to ensure the citizens who live around the property in question have the ability to guide its future use. Involving residents in city planning is how cities create complete neighborhoods, which offer green space, recreation opportunities, housing for a range of incomes, education, services, healthcare, with a focus on access for all residents.”
In response to a Greater Park Hill News inquiry, Laura Swartz, spokeswoman for the city planning department, could not cite any prior examples of the city embarking on planning efforts involving parcels of land with protective conservation easements.
The 14 plaintiffs represent all 11 of Denver’s City Council districts and include several high profile community leaders and former officeholders. Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, who initially negotiated the $2 million conservation easement on the property in 1997, is a plaintiff, as is former Colorado Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, former state Sen. Penfield Tate, former State Rep. Anne McGihan and former Denver councilman Rafael Espinoza. Community organizers Brother Jeff Fard, Tony Pigford and Xochitl Gaytan are also named plaintiffs (full list is below).
A full copy of the filed complaint can be read at this link: https://bit.ly/3xIESTe
District 1 — Rafael Espinoza
District 2 — Xochitl Dayton
District 3 — Jason Paul McGlaughlin
District 4 — Anthony W. Pigford
District 5 — Laurie B. Bogue
District 6 — Joan Fitz-Gerald
District 7 — Anne McGihon
District 8 — Phebe Lassiter, Nancy Young, Penfield Tate*
District 9 — Jeff “Brother Jeff” Fard, Yadira Sanchez,
District 10 — Regina Jackson
District 11 — Gabriel Lindsay
* Editor’s note: Penfield Tate, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, is a contributing opinion columnist to this newspaper. He has no oversight of news coverage of the lawsuit, and does not plan to write on the topic in these pages, to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
Yes For Parks Makes The Ballot
Westside Now Collecting Signatures For Dueling Initiative In November
The YES for Parks and Open Space ballot initiative, designed to protect the Park Hill Golf Course land from development, has been approved for the November ballot.
On June 21, the Denver Elections Division determined that 10,720 signatures that were submitted were valid — well over the 8,265 required to make the ballot. In all, organizers submitted more than 14,000 signatures.
Organizers of the committee, which is sponsored by the citizens group Save Open Space Denver, say the measure is designed to protect conservation easements within the City and County of Denver — most notably the easement protecting the Park Hill Golf Course land.
Westside Investment Partners, which purchased the 155-acre golf course property with the conservation easement in 2019, is currently lobbying Denver officials to lift it so they can proceed with development.
Westside has responded to the YES for Parks and Open Space efforts by pushing its own initiative that some say is designed to confuse voters. The wording on the Westside-funded proposal essentially mirrors that of the YES for Open Space committee’s, with a notable difference: the Park Hill Golf Course property would be exempted.
Westside’s campaign is called “Empower Northeast Denver.” Its paid signature gatherers are currently collecting signatures: it must submit 9,184 valid signatures by July 6 in order to land the competing measure on the ballot.
Colette Carey, a spokeswoman for YES for Parks and Open Space, said she is concerned about unsuspecting voters who may be confused.
“Any petitioner who is out there NOW is trying to get your support on a measure that EXCLUDES city-owned conservation easements (read – the Park Hill Golf Course land) and is conveniently funded by the developer,” Carey said. “Beware of what you sign. The original measure has already made the ballot.”
— Cara DeGette