If you’re looking at your ballot and wondering why 1) there are two very similar sounding measures and 2) why residents far from the Park Hill Golf Course are voting to decide its future, you’re not alone.
Depending on who you ask, the fight is either about ensuring continued citywide input on a large, undeveloped plot of land that should be preserved, or an unprecedented overreach into what should be a locally discussed project and negotiations between a private property owner and the city.
It may also be both or neither.
A Brief History
From 1899 to 1982 the city was trustee of the trust from Denver resident and philanthropist George W. Clayton, who owned the land. From 1982 through 1997 the city didn’t have direct interest in the golf course, but in 1997, the city paid $2 million to acquire use restrictions on the property — namely that it would be a golf course and open to recreation. Those restrictions are governed by what’s called a conservation easement. The property continued to be privately owned but that $2 million of taxpayer money is important for today’s fight.
Fast forward to 2017 — the city looked at buying the property but wanted a clear title and the company operating a golf course was renewing for another five years.
In 2019, the trust sold the land to Westside Investment Partners, a Glendale based developer, for $24 million. Westside separately negotiated with Arcis, the company that operated the golf course, to acquire their interests.
Dueling Ballot Measures
A group of Denver residents created initiative 301, which would require a citywide vote on changing any conservation easement. If 301 passes, you will see another ballot measure before anything happens at the site (with the possible exception of it becoming a golf course again, though that is extremely unlikely as no parties have said they want a golf course).
The measure can’t dictate a certain use because it’s private land, but, if 301 passes, any development would likely be barred until the public weighs in on the easement again.
In response, Empower NE Denver, started by Westside, created 302, which changes the definition of an easement, effectively exempting the golf course. Essentially it means if 302 passes, the current situation (see below) will continue, even if 301 also passes (more on that interaction at the end).
What Can Westside (or Anyone) Build Right Now?
Currently, the land is zoned as open space and has a conservation easement restricting use, so no commercial or residential structures can be built (except as related to the golf course).
Rezonings go through city council, after which some combination of commercial or residential could be built depending on the new zoning, but changing the easement would have to go through a judge. Without that, the city says the land can only be used as a golf course, and other recreation that doesn’t interfere with a golf course, even if it’s rezoned.
301 proponents argue that the easement would allow other open space conservation uses besides a golf course and a spokesperson for the campaign said the city is ignoring those options because “the city and Westside believe they can sit in a smoke filled room and make decisions.” It’s likely that disagreement could end up in the courts, depending on the outcome of the election. City officials disagree with 301’s interpretation of the easement. Depending on the outcome of this election, that dispute may end up in the courts.
That means today Westside (or another owner) can’t really build anything. They were in the process of planning and discussions with the city when 301 changed the situation, causing them to pivot to run a ballot measure they hadn’t planned on.
Who is behind 301, What do They Want, and What’s Their Argument?
Yes for Parks and Open Space is supporting 301 and opposing 302. Penfield Tate, a Park Hill resident, former state legislator, and two time mayoral candidate, has been one of the public faces of the organization. He and other advocates say they agree that all of the land shouldn’t be a golf course, but they would like to see it kept as other open space. In a recent interview with this paper, Tate said, “We’re not trying to compel a particular use,” saying it could be part natural habitat, part community garden, used for urban farming, community festivals, or any number of other options — if the community has the chance to weigh in.
They argue a citywide vote is appropriate because, even though it’s private land, the city has been involved with management of the land for decades and city funds were used to create the conservation easement. They also note that large open space is of regional benefit and doesn’t just impact the nearby community. Tate also said that Westside “Bought land they knew they couldn’t develop,” accusing them of now trying to cut a “sweetheart deal” with the city administration.
301 has gained support from prominent residents including former mayor Wellington Webb. While Yes For Parks and Open Space doesn’t have the funds of 302, they aren’t without resources themselves. They’ve raised $112,025 as of October 5, the most recent filing. Their largest contribution was $15,000 from Jim Kelley, a Denver resident who said in an interview that he didn’t have any financial interest in the outcome, but wanted to support preserving open space.
What Does Westside (302 proponents) Want to Build? What’s Their Argument?
Empower NE Denver is the official campaign opposing 301 and supporting 302, which was started by Westside.
The 302 campaign isn’t arguing what should or shouldn’t be built, but rather that the decision should be made through a more focused, local process with the Park Hill community, not the entire city.
Westside is looking at a mixed use development, but wouldn’t share specifics on the amount of land that would be left open, how many units they are hoping to build, or similar details. “It would be disrespectful to the local community to say exactly what would be there,” said Kenneth Ho in a recent interview with this paper. Ho is a Principal of Westside Investment Partners.
He did say they have heard from the community that a full service grocery store and other amenities would be beneficial and they hope to include those. Without rezoning, they don’t have specifics on what would be allowed but didn’t answer several direct questions this reporter asked about what they were hoping to build when they purchased the land.
Ho is making the case to voters that a citywide vote on the future of private property is unprecedented in the city and that it’s most appropriate to have a regional plan with communities in the area who have the biggest stake in the future. He stressed that his company is working with local residents and said the 301 campaign is ignoring the community engagement they are doing when calling for a city-wide vote.
He also noted they can’t just build whatever they want even without 301 pasing. Besides changing/lifting the easement, the entire parcel will have to be rezoned before development could occur. Ho explained that details such as the number of units, percentage below market rate (or otherwise considered affordable), and similar details would be articulated in a development agreement with the city, along with a community benefits agreement. Such an agreement would likely be created during the rezoning process which they hope can continue.
Empower Northeast Denver has raised $340,725 as of October 5, the most recent filing. $268,305 of that was an in-kind contribution from Westside for signature gathering. Corporate contributions account for all but a few hundred dollars of their overall fundraising.
What Happens If They Pass and/or Fail?
- If 301 passes and 302 fails, any changes to this easement, or future development on other private land with an easement, would have to go to a vote of the people. 301 can’t compel a certain use of the land, but it can likely hold up development by forcing more public votes on the easement.
Essentially any other result means the future of the private land is left to the owners, city, and potentially courts to determine:
- If both pass, any other conservation easements would have to go to a vote, but not the golf course, as it would be exempted by 302.
- If both fail, it’s the current status quo, which means the city and developer can take the easement modifications to the courts, rezone, etc and development can happen without additional votes of the public.
- If 302 passes and 301 fails, it’s mostly the same as both failing, except 302 advocates would likely have more political capital.
Still Have Questions?
No other ballot measure this year has the sheer amount of information to read as 301/302. If you visit www.denvergov.org/parkhillgolfcourse and select “resources,” you can read the entire easement, an FAQ about the easement, and more.