SOS Denver Highlights New Law Protecting Conservation Easements In Latest Salvo Over Park Hill Golf Course
By Cara DeGette
In the latest twist to an ongoing tug-of-war over the former Park Hill Golf Course, the group fighting to keep the 155 acres as open space stepped forward in late October to highlight a new state law they say makes the land off-limits to development.
Specifically, the law governing conservation easements, signed by Gov. Jared Polis on June 30, now makes it more difficult to simply terminate land protection easements – including the easement currently in place on the golf course land.
Previously, city officials, developers and open space advocates have all said terminating the existing conservation easement on the golf course property could be done with a simple majority vote of the Denver city council.
Now, anyone who wants to terminate an easement must take their case to a judge, and convince that judge that it has become “impossible” to fulfill the easement’s purposes. The law applies not just to the golf course, but all conservation easements in Colorado.
Open space advocates say they believe the change in law thwarts what many thought was a tacit backroom “wink and nod” agreement between the city and developers, who thought all they needed was a majority council vote.
On Oct. 22, the group Save Open Space Denver (SOS Denver) held a press conference in an open field at 40th and Colorado Boulevard, just north of the now-closed golf course. The purpose was to explain the implications of the revised statute for the property, which Westside Development Partners purchased 11 days after the new law went into effect.
The media event drew several dozen supporters, including former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, former Colorado Gov. and First Lady Dick and Dottie Lamm, former Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher, and former state senator and mayoral candidate Penfield Tate III. Melissa Daruna, executive director of Keep It Colorado, spoke, as did Woody Garnsey, a retired attorney from Park Hill who has been a main organizer for SOS Denver.
Webb, a fierce opponent of any efforts to remove the conservation easement or develop any portion of the golf course land, urged open space advocates to “draw a line in the sand.”
“I believe what has made Colorado so special, and Denver so unique, is our ability to protect open space against land development,” he said.
Geysers of controversy
The conservation easement on the golf course was put in place in 1997, when Webb was mayor. The city paid $2 million to Clayton Early Learning, which owned the property. The goal, Webb said, “was to be good stewards of the land, to save this land as open space in perpetuity.”
In recent years, the property has been a geyser of ongoing controversies and at least two lawsuits. Major players have included Clayton Early Learning, which owned the property for a century, the city of Denver, which holds the conservation easement on the property, and Arcis Golf, which operated the golf course there for decades. The group SOS Denver formed when it became increasingly clear that efforts were afoot to pursue commercial and residential development there.
In June, just after Denver’s municipal runoff election, a fifth player unexpectedly emerged: Westside Development Partners, which announced imminent plans to buy the property from Clayton Early Learning for $24 million.
During the campaign, SOS Denver had asked all candidates whether they would vote to keep the land as open space.
Five of the candidates who won, including two who ousted incumbents, signed a pledge to preserve the land free from development.
Others, including District 8 Councilman Chris Herndon, have indicated support for developing at least part of the land. Mayor Michael B. Hancock, who easily won reelection, has declined to publicly state his position. Both Hancock and Herndon have accepted campaign contributions from Westside partners.
Some community members have also supported the idea that at least part of the property could be developed as residential and commercial projects – including affordable housing and a grocery store.
Asked by a reporter in October whether he would support affordable housing on the golf course land, Webb had a simple response: “No.”
“Do we need affordable housing?” he continued. “Absolutely yes.” From the field where he was speaking, Webb gestured toward the east, and to the north, saying that many nearby vacant properties are already well suited for such projects.
“The goal is not to get caught up in silly claims by the developers that the [golf course land] is the only land available for affordable housing.”
Letters to the city
The day of the press conference and rally, SOS Denver submitted a letter to Mayor Hancock and members of the city council, reminding the elected officials of the new law.
“In the event that the City and Westside (or any Westside successor) might file a legal action seeking a court order terminating, releasing, extinguishing, and/or abandoning the conservation easement in whole or in part, we request that the city immediately notify us of the filing in writing,” the letter reads in part.
SOS Denver also opined that with the conservation easement in place, there is “no legitimate basis” for the city to proceed with any city-led planning process to develop the property. “Any such action would needlessly waste the valuable time and resources of the city and its citizens.”
That same day, Denver Councilmembers Debbie Ortega and Candi CdeBaca also submitted a letter to Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson, asking for her opinion on how the new law applies to the golf course property.
“Since Westside has publicly announced that it plans to develop the Park Hill Golf Course land contrary to the plain language of the conservation easement, we request that you provide City Council with an opinion letter regarding the power of the City and Westside to terminate, release, extinguish, or abandon the conservation easement in whole or in part,” the councilwomen wrote.
They asked Bronson to define any legal and/or administrative role of Denver City Council as the new law applies.
Ortega and CdeBaca explained further that the interpretation is particularly relevant as the easement issue would need resolution before the city and its planning department begin any Large Development Review process. That city-led process was adopted as part of the citywide Blueprint Denver document adopted earlier this year.
Caught by surprise
Reached by phone shortly after the press conference ended, Kenneth Ho, who is Westside’s Park Hill Golf Course land project manager, said he was not aware of the change in the law.
The statute was enacted 11 days before Westside signed the contract to purchase the property from Clayton Early Learning. It does not target the golf course land specially; rather it applies to all 2.2 million acres in Colorado that currently have such easements in place.
“Obviously this just happened, and we need to look into the details,” Ho said. “Were still digging into that to see whether we agree with [SOS Denver’s] interpretation or not.”
Since purchasing the property, Westside has been vague about its plans – at least at neighborhood gatherings.
Indeed, it has been vague about why it purchased the land at all, when it knew that the conservation easement currently in place restricts commercial and residential development.
“We knew there would be a lot of challenges to look at alternative uses for the golf course, but inclusivity is an important value to us,” Ho said. “It’s important to respect the voices of SOS [the Save Open Space Denver group], but theirs is a narrow viewpoint. We’ve also been talking [to people] at barber shops and churches and mosques and hearing other viewpoints.”
What people want
Ho has attended GPHC’s monthly community meetings since August, when he introduced himself and talked about his background as a developer and planner. He said Westside is committed to having a “broader community discussion” about what people want to happen to the golf course land.
“We are absolutely open to developing it as a park,” Ho said. He also said, “The expectation is that we will recoup our investment.”
The following month, Ho again entertained questions about the developer’s intentions, and acknowledged the constraints of the conservation easement. “In order for anything to happen, the majority of the city council would have to vote to remove it,” he said. (The state law had already changed.)
Westside, Ho said, supports a “city-led vision for that property” to determine its future.
Pressed for specifics, he acknowledged, “Our company does not believe that a golf course is the right use there, so we’re wanting to come up with a plan to remove or modify the conservation easement.”
The discussion with neighbors was generally congenial. However, one woman eventually stood up, exasperated. “Why don’t you tell us what you are going to do and quit wasting our time.” she said.
To which Ho politely responded, “Is that a question?”
Note: This story has been corrected from the print version to reflect there are 2.2 million acres of land in Colorado that are protected with conservation easements.