Denver Direct: Hentzell Park Natural Area decision unjustified

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Hentzell Park Natural Area decision unjustified

Analysis and commentary
by Dave Felice

Denver Parks and Recreation Manager Laurie Dannemiller uses misleading arguments in her
decision to give up nine acres of Hentzell Park Natural Area for a school
building site. The fundamental aspect of the decision is the destruction of
rare, valuable, and irreplaceable natural land.  The decision is
compounded by the secrecy and deception of the city and school district

Parks now steps away from the final determination.  “To be
clear, the recommendation Manager Dannemiller made is not going to City Council
for approval.  The Land Swap Agreement before City Council is going to be
led by the Denver Real Estate Office,” says Angela Casias, a spokesperson for

In exchange for the park land, the city would get
a school office building at 13th and Fox to assist victims of domestic

It is very difficult to stay
objective on this matter.  People throughout the city are distraught and
traumatized by the decision.  The level of emotion almost rivals that of
the ban on outdoor sleeping.

Many Denverites and members
of the Parks and Recreation Board, while acknowledging the decision posed a
dilemma, saw that preservation and protection of the natural area is not at
odds with victims’ assistance, education, or even budgetary

Instead, as many Parks Board
members stated at the public meeting December 13, it is inappropriate to view
these as mutually exclusive options that are in competition with each
other.  There is no evidence that the city has exhausted all other
possible efforts to fund acquisition of the building desired for the victims’
service center, or that Denver Public Schools (DPS) has considered all options
available to it, including exercising condemnation powers to acquire a
commercial site for redevelopment as a school.

The decision, in fact, is wrong
and is bad public policy.  It sets an extremely dangerous precedent that
the administration can do what it wants with public lands and that loss of
natural park land is not important.

Parks and Recreation Manager Lauri
Dannemiller’s assertion that the nine acres in question should be viewed as a
stand-alone tract is completely at odds with the detailed findings in the
Hentzell Park Natural Area Management Plan. 
This plan served as the basis for the Parks Advisory Board’s unanimous
vote in 2007 to designate the natural area, and the then-manager’s decision to
adopt the board’s recommendation.  As the Management Plan made clear, these
nine acres, on the south side of Cherry Creek, have important natural values
(including natural vegetation and native seeds for plains species found almost
nowhere else in Denver) deserving of preservation and restoration.

Mayor Michael B. Hancock’s letter
stating that this area is “blighted” represents complete ignorance of the
essential character of any undeveloped natural area.   It also
ignores the Hentzell Park Management Plan’s carefully conceived multi-year plan
for preservation and restoration of the natural area—a plan that unfortunately
was not carried out because of the city’s severe budget cuts in the wake of the
Great Recession of 2008.  In other words, the city’s own inaction has
resulted in this area not achieving its full potential as a refuge for native
vegetation and species. 

As many people have said, the area
was supposed to be restored, and just because the city didn’t have the money in
2008-2012 to do the job, the claim by Parks now that the land has no
significant natural area values is a circular and cynical argument.  

Dannemiller’s after-the-fact
rationale that there is no “no net loss” is also specious.  She never
stated, in any of her communications with the board or the public prior to
issuance of her decision on January 2, 2013,
that her entire analysis would be driven by the Parks Department’s acquisition
of adequate parkland elsewhere to offset this loss of acreage. 

Moreover, all parkland is not
fungible.  Each tract has attributes unique to its setting and characteristics, and
to the citizens who view it as special.  Would Dannemiller argue that it
would be acceptable to sell off Cheesman Park for commercial or residential development if the city
acquired an equal number of acres of parkland elsewhere?

Councilwoman Peggy Lehmann’s
suggestion of dedicating that remaining 15 acres is nothing more than
appeasement.  If the remaining acreage has value, one cannot claim that
the lost area does not have the same value.

Further, to say that adding
natural area acreage to Heron Pond is an adequate substitute for destroying
Hentzell Park Natural Area is a false comparison.  Heron Pond is a
reclaimed polluted Superfund site, only made acceptable for public use by
scraping away and replacing 12 or more inches of top soil, and with it any
native vegetation that may have existed on the site.  By contrast, both
the Hentzell Park Management Plan and Gayle Weinstein, former naturalist for Denver Parks and Recreation, confirm that the intact soil at Hentzell Park contains precious native prairie grasses and seed.

Dannemiller’s written decision
makes a mockery of public process and the purpose behind the charter-created
Parks Advisory Board.  The mayor and DPS made their deal long before the
matter came to public attention, and then sought ratification of their plan
with as little public notice and hearing as possible.  Despite inadequate
notice, there was an outpouring of public comment in opposition to the plan at
two separate meetings of the Parks Advisory Board.  Nevertheless, neither
this citizen involvement nor the Parks Board’s 11-6 vote to retain designation
of the Natural Area had any impact on Dannemiller’s decision.

Dannemiller falsely claims in her
decision that there was confusion at the Parks Advisory board’s December 13
meeting about DPS’s need for the Natural Area property as a school building
site.  The board had before it a written communication from Benita Duran
in the DPS superintendent’s office stating that “we cannot guarantee [either an
ECE center or elementary school] nor the timing” and all plans would be placed
on hold “if population shifts dramatically.”   

Therefore, the School District has made no commitment to actually build a school on the Hentzell
property.  In fact, some members of the School Board question the wisdom
of even suggesting that the site – in a flood plain and next to a busy highway
– is appropriate for a school.  Dannemiller attempted to disguise DPS’s
complete lack of any concrete commitment by soliciting and attaching to her decision
a new letter from the DPS superintendent dated December 20, 2012.  Note that nowhere
in that letter does the Superintendent Tom Boasberg confirm that a school will
in fact be built on the Hentzell Park land.  Instead, he states only that “this land will
only be used for school purposes”—an ambiguous, legally nonbinding assertion
offered to counter concerns by the parks advisory board that DPS is simply
“warehousing” this land on speculation. 

Dannemiller can no longer be
trusted as Manager of Parks.  She shows herself to be a political
agent.  The honorable thing to do would be to request reassignment, or
resign altogether.  There is a complete lack of confidence in her ability
to function as steward of public lands. 

In supporting the decision, the
nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL) must have some political motivation
for a breach of fiduciary responsibility.  Only a few years ago, TPL said Denver was sorely deficient in per capita park and open
space, yet now TPL says it’s acceptable to give up natural open land.

Councilwoman Peggy Lehmann
supports the swap, and, by tradition, Council usually approves a matter
affecting a specific district.  Approving the exchange, Council would
tacitly condone all the egregious questionable behavior surrounding the scheme.

Council must act in two ways:

1.  Refuse to transfer the
Hentzell land to DPS, and declare that the natural area should remain part of Denver’s parks system; and,

2.  Designate ALL of Hentzell Park, including ALL of the Designated Natural Area, as a
designated park that will then be subject to the Charter’s Section 2.4.5
requiring public vote on sale or lease.