Denver Direct: City officials try to quiet opposition to park deal

Monday, November 26, 2012

City officials try to quiet opposition to park deal

By Dave Felice

Special to Denver Direct

Denver’s Parks and Recreation Department (DPR) is apparently trying to appease the public and thwart criticism of Mayor Michael B. Hancock’s controversial proposal to give up park land in exchange for a downtown building owned by the school district.

Advocates for parks, open space, and wildlife seriously question Hancock’s scheme to trade nine acres of Hentzell Park in far southeast Denver for a building at 1330 Fox to house a victims’ assistance center. The land in question is part of the designated, but not necessarily dedicated, Natural Area of the park.

For the plan to proceed, the Parks Manager needs a recommendation from the Parks Advisory Board (PRAB). Following the recommendation, the manager can decide to de-designate the park land. Members of the Advisory Board say Parks and the school district have provided insufficient information about the deal.

In response, the Parks Department presents a different approach for prairie dog control, launches a campaign to influence the Advisory Board, and looks at official park dedication for the remaining 14 acres of natural area.

The Parks Department reveals it intends to put up poles where birds of prey can perch in an attempt to naturally control the prairie dog population in the Stapleton area. This follows harsh criticism of efforts to eradicate the animals by poisoning and gassing, especially in areas where children play. The Hentzell Park area also has prairie dogs, and Parks Manager Lauri Dannemiller says those animals would have to be eliminated as well.

Expressing skepticism, birds of prey specialists have mixed opinions about the effectiveness of the “raptor poles.” The key, they say, is to closely monitor the results and not just claim success. The bird specialists say getting good information on the results will be difficult, because there are multiple influences on prairie dog population levels. Some studies show that prairie dogs towns have shrunk after such perches are used in conjunction with other methods.

Assistant Parks Manager Scott Gilmore, a wildlife specialist and Stapleton resident, is taking ownership of the raptor perches project. Gilmore had previously posted comments of the Parks web site stating that prairie dogs provide a good opportunity to teach children about wildlife because the dogs are one of the few non-nocturnal species.

DPR has repudiated previous natural area management plans and no longer has a full-time wildlife biologist on staff.

In what appears to be an attempt to convince the Advisory Board to accept the deal at its next meeting, Parks is now presenting more information on its web site and offering tours of the area in question. Manager Lauri Dannemiller says the department has a dedicated address for e-mail on the subject.

The online information now declares that the area in question is a total of 11.5 acres, which includes a two-and-a-half acre parking lot originally built for Kennedy Golf Course. In its initial information, Parks specified only 5.7 acres of park land would be transferred. Now, a total of nine acres of designated natural area is at risk. Opponents say changing the specification should require the 45-day notification process to be restarted.

According to DPR’s web site:

Denver Parks and Recreation will accept public comments until December 13, 2012. The Advisory board will make a recommendation at the meeting after reviewing public comments. You may email your comments to [email protected] or mail them to Manager Lauri Dannemiller, 201 W Colfax Ave., Dept 601 Denver, CO 80202. Please mention Hentzell Natural Area in the subject.

Those who comment should keep in mind that, unless marked otherwise, communication is a public document, subject to the Colorado Open Records Act. Dannemiller’s phone is 720-913-0738.

Advisory Board President Keith Pryor ([email protected]) of Council District 8 has sent an e-mail message to encourage board members to review the material and get public comment before the next Board meeting December 13. The Board meets at 5:30 p.m. in the Webb Office Building. E-mail addresses for the Advisory Board members are on the web site.

“Please try and have some conversations with as many people as you can to get a sense of the pros and cons and come ready to make a recommendation,” writes Pryor. “We will be sending out any additional public comment that is received by the public before the meeting.”

In a further effort of seemingly public appeasement, Dannemiller says District 4 Councilwoman Peggy Lehmann has “initiated a conversation” about dedicating by ordinance the remaining 14 acres of the natural area north of Cherry Creek. This comes in response to concerns that once the school district had control of the southern section, there would be little to prevent northward incursion.

James T. Allen is still getting Advisory Board e-mail and sitting in on deliberations. Allen is the representative for Denver Public Schools on the Advisory Board and has a conflict of interest because he is also the Director of Bond Construction for the school district. Charter Section 2.61 says city representatives shall refrain from attempting to influence decisions.

School district critics still question the actual need for a school in the Hampden Heights location. Even though voters approved a $400 million bond to include the costs of the school, DPS still hasn’t presented clear plans on its intent to even build a school.

Homeowners in the area protest that they are being deceived by the de-designation process. They say they bought their property believing that it would always be adjacent to park land.

Park advocates, including attorney Joe Halpern, say it is improper to give up even one inch of land in a city which is already deficient in the amount of per capita park and open space property. Critics claim the city is using technical details to circumvent Charter Section 2.4.5 on public oversight of ownership of public parks.

People who plan to attend the Advisory Board meeting December 13 should use the Court Street entrance to the Webb Building and be prepared to go through security screening.