Denver Direct: Report on Land Swap Deal Meeting

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Report on Land Swap Deal Meeting

via Dave Felice
This report comes from a neighborhood resident who attended a Denver Public Schools “informational briefing” about the proposed property trade between the school district and Denver’s Parks and Recreation.  According to the proposal, the school district would take nine acres of Hentzell Park Wildlife Open Space in exchange for an office building at 1330 Fox Street.  Despite the importance of the deal to the entire city, school officials originally only invited residents of Hampden Heights to the meeting.

The meeting at Holm Elementary School was predictable:
  • Various DPS representatives said they’d been working for two-to-three years to find a place for a new school to serve the far southeast Denver because of overcrowding in four of the five DPS schools in that area.  The overcrowding exists despite the fact that about half the students who live near these schools opt to go to school out of the neighborhood and/or DPS.  And this is by far the least expensive place to build the school. 
  • Kelly Reed of Denver Parks and Recreation (DPR) explained what a headache prairie dogs are and that their overpopulation in this location has greatly degraded the vegetation.  Parks and Recreation is concerned that the prairie dogs will move into the higher value natural area to the north.  So this meets DPR’s needs well.  In response to a questions, he said DPR would transfer the land to DPS with the prairie dogs, and DPS gets to decide to move them or kill them and how.
  • Parks and Rec has added 500 acres of parkland in recent years in other parts of the city, mainly in the far northeast and Stapleton.  Kelly Reed pointed out the far southeast area has more area in parks per capita than other areas in the city, primarily because of Cherry Creek.  Park representatives talked about the need for flexibility with city land, and how natural areas may not be what’s needed in the future in any given place. 
The people most upset are those who live in houses that backed up to the prairie dog town.  They like their current situation with a natural area immediately behind their houses, and do not want a busy street, school buses coming and going, and a noisy school.  These homeowners asked how DPS will protect them.  Suggestions from the home owners included more space between the school and their back fences and trees in a buffer space.

The available staff at the meeting provided no good answer to a question about building a school in the flood plain.
The school facility is expected to eventually have both an Early Childhood Education (ECE) and Kindergarten all day program and an elementary school, grades 1-5.  DPS will build one of these first, and then add the other as needed. 

De-designation of a Natural Area currently only requires the Parks Manager to have a hearing and then, regardless of what was said at the hearing, sign the order.  Many believe the prairie dog town is mostly destined to be a school.

The current designation process requires the Manager to adopt a Management Plan for a natural area, and must choose from one of four classifications: Active Use Natural Areas; Conservation and Restoration Areas; Potential Native Areas; and Preservation Areas.  DPR’s classification of the Hentzell Park property could determine how the de-designation process is properly accomplished.  For instance, if it is a “Preservation Area,” then it is closed to “public access or use” and can only be viewed from adjoining land.
There needs to be some sort of stability in the Natural Areas program.  Kelly Reed commented on how much work it would take to “create a high quality natural area” where the prairie dogs are.  It seems that a vote of the people should be required for de-designation when the land is owned by the City.