Hentzell Park

Hampden Heist – “The Abduction of a Denver Park” – A Film by KC Keefer

The current controversy over what’s known as Hentzell Park Natural Area goes back a couple of years.  Despite talk of transparency in government and Open Records reporting, only a few people in City Hall and the school administration are likely to ever know what deals were made behind the scenes.

The land, also known as Hampden Heights North Park, is located on the southern end of Hentzell Park, near Hampden and Girard in southeast Denver.  Denver acquired the property in 1936.  Denver Parks and Recreation (DPR) managed the land for years, while the public used the area for recreational and other park-like activities.  In  2007, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board unanimously designated the property as Hentzell Park Natural Area because of its rare natural habitat, wildlife, and native prairie grass.

When Kelly Leid worked for the Denver Public Schools in 2010, he apparently decided the land would be the best place for an elementary school.  It is not clear if Leid knew anything about the title to the land at the time.

Shortly after the mayoral election, Leid went to work for Michael B. Hancock who wanted the city to have a centralized domestic violence assistance center.  Rose Andom, the owner of the McDonald’s restaurant franchise at Denver International Airport, promised a $1 million gift to launch the assistance center.  Andom also contributed to Hancock’s election campaign.

Supposedly, the best site for the center  was an aging 40,000 square foot building at 1330 Fox Street, owned by the school district.  Boasberg acknowledged the building “had outlived its usefulness.”

It seems that even before the city fully investigated the designation of the park property, Mayor Hancock and DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg  decided to trade 11 acres of Hampden Heights North (Hentzell) Park for the building.  Almost concurrently, Boasberg secretly purchased another building at 1860 Lincoln.  The building was to house the administrative staff from Fox Street and the Emily Griffith Technical College (Opportunity School).  Boasberg then immediately tried to sell the old Griffith property at 13th and Glenarm, but was quickly thwarted by Historic Denver.

The city then issued a series of conflicting and inaccurate notices about the disposition of the park property.  By trying to confine the notices only to the immediate area, Denver Parks and Recreation apparently hoped to seal the deal without much attention.

As soon as public notifications were issued, and before the decisions were made, a coalition of victims’ assistance providers trumpeted the acquisition of a “new home” in an Internet posting.  As the process moved forward and the controversy grew, that posting was taken down.

A faulty public hearing before the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board in November 2012 led to a second hearing in December.  There is no public record of the second hearing because, according to DPR, the recording equipment wasn’t working, but DPR staff did not tell anyone.

In December 2012, the Parks Advisory Board voted 11-6 to uphold the unanimous 2007 designation of the natural area.  Three of Hancock’s five appointees voted in favor of retaining natural area designation.  Two of them were unceremoniously replaced by the January meeting of the Advisory Board.

In early January 2013, Parks and Recreation Manager Laurie Dannemiller defied the vote, overruled the Advisory Board, stripped the land of its protected natural area designation, and declared that the land could be transferred to the school district.  The Trust for Public Land, which has previously reported Denver had a lack of park space, supported Dannemiller’s decision.

Within hours of being appointed to fill the seat of Nate Easley on the School Board, Landri Taylor voted with the majority Board to accept the scheme.

The City Council then subsequently voted 10-to-3 to approve the land swap.  Throughout the process, District 4 Councilwoman Peggy Lehmann supported the trade scheme.

District Attorney Mitch Morrisey also backed the transfer, speaking at public meetings and allowing his staff to use office time and resources to influence the decisions.

With all the pieces apparently in place, the city and the school district moved forward.  Attorney John Case and several residents of the Hampden Heights area, with strong support from park advocates citywide, formed Friends of Denver Parks to mount a legal challenge to the transfer. Acting in the public interest, Case is representing the park advocatespro bono, that is, without charge.

Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson declared the City Council action was “administrative,” and not legislative.  On July 1, 2013, Friends of Denver Parks submitted a referendum petition to Johnson, seeking to repeal the land swap.  The petition contained 6,664 signatures of Denver registered voters, 535 more than the number of valid signatures required to place the issue on the ballot.  The clerk refused to count the signatures.  She invited the petitioner’s committee to seek relief in the courts.

On August 19, 2013 Friends of Denver Parks submitted an additional,1,297 signatures.  By the end of August, the clerk had not responded to the second submission.  Friends of Denver Parks is making a separate legal challenge to Johnson’s actions.

In a recent published commentary, respected environmental affairs writer Joanne Ditmer, quotes Friends of Denver Parks President, Renee Lewis:

“City Council went on to approve the land swap even though citizens wrote and campaigned to stop the transaction.  At all points citizens were told, ‘It’s a done deal.  It’s not a matter of if it will happen.  It’s only a matter of when.’”

Ditmer continued to comment:

“Park lovers were furious. Denver citizens feel strongly about their beautiful and irreplaceable parks, how they enhance daily lives with beauty and serenity, give recreational opportunities near homes, and add value to neighborhoods.”
The defense was that the park wasn’t officially designated, and therefore not protected by Denver’s city charter, which says no land acquired by the city after Dec. 31, 1955, shall be deemed a ‘park’ unless specifically designated such by city ordinance. The charter also says city parks may not be sold or given away without a vote of the people.”

In a clear attempt to appease the citizenry, Parks and Recreation immediately started a process to officially designate other park lands, including 15 acres adjacent to the land in question.

Calling the case “troublesome and difficult,” District Court Judge Herbert Stern denied a request for a temporary injunction to stop the transfer.  The case is set to go to full trial early on May 19, 2014.  It has not been determined if Stern will hear the case alone, or if, as Case has requested, there will be a jury.

Denver’s Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, a consortium of most Registered Neighborhood Organizations, has joined the Friend of Denver Parks and carrying forward the lawsuit.

Judge Stern’s ruling has already been quoted by the City Attorney of Englewood as if the case were a done deal and administration action has the rule of law.  In what appears to be a land grab in Englewood, the city proposes to sell park land near a light rail station to a friend of a City Council member for less than market value.  The Friends of Denver Parks and INC ruling apparently will be case law when it is finished.

Full details of the lawsuit, including legal documents, are available at www.FriendsofDenverParks.org.

 

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