Hentzell Park court case to be decided May 2014

By Carol Carpenter
RMC Communications Team

Editorial Note: The September issue of Peak & Prairie contained an article about the city of Denver swapping a portion of Hentzell Park in southeast Denver to construct an elementary school on the property. In exchange for the Hentzell property, the city would get a Denver Public Schools (DPS) office building on Fox Street that would be converted into a domestic violence administrative center. Here is an update from Renee Lewis, president of Friends of Denver Parks, a grassroots citizens’ group fighting the land swap, a position supported by Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter.

Prairie dog
Prairie dogs were recently trapped
and killed at Hentzell Park

Renee Lewis, president of Friends of Denver Parks (FDP), said some people in the Denver area erroneously believe a court case her organization has initiated against the city to stop the Hentzell Park land swap has already been decided in favor of the city. “There is a rampant rumor that we have lost our court case, but our court date is May 19, 2014, and our case has not been decided,” Lewis said.

Also, FDP had asked the court for a preliminary injunction to stop any construction until the case is heard. “The judge did not grant us the injunction, and we are appealing that decision,” she added.

The matter concerns 10.7 acres of open natural park space located near South Havana St., and East Girard Ave., and which includes a portion of the Cherry Creek bike path near Hampden Ave. Although never declared an official city park by ordinance, various city maps and signs have referred to it as a park, and citizens have used it for decades for that purpose. (The formal name on city maps for the Hentzell Park Natural Area is Hampden Heights North Park; however, they are one and the same.)

The property is zoned as Open Space-Park. “The land is very valuable property on the Cherry Creek; on the other side of the creek adjacent to the land is a well maintained golf course,” said Lewis. “The only entity who can legally change zonings without formalities is the school district. There is a clear intent to circumvent the vote of the people and manipulate laws in order to bypass this process.”

The natural area includes an historic trail and was formerly used as a Native American hunting ground for bison and deer. It currently is home to numerous and indigenous species of plant and animal life, including prairie dogs.

In late September, a Westword article pointed out that DPS began trapping and eradicating a prairie dog colony on the site, despite FDP’s lawsuit and objections by local residents whose children use the park for bike riding. The prairie dogs serve as a main food source for wild bird populations, and FDP is alarmed that the birds will be left without their food supply during winter months.

Controversial land swap approved

Although a majority of the Denver Parks Advisory Board initially voted against the land swap, it was approved in a subsequent decision by Denver Parks and Recreation. In April the Denver City Council voted 10-3 to approve the land swap, finding that the action would save the city money in establishing a domestic violence center and an elementary school with athletic fields.

Many citizens and park lovers in Denver were upset, and the situation sparked legal action by FDP, which collected signatures on a petition that would place the matter on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Most crucial to the matter is that the FDP’s case will establish the city of Denver’s legal right to use undesignated parks for development in the future, Lewis continued. “This will also spill over into every city in Colorado as a legal precedent. The number of parks subject to this ruling in Denver is substantial, although the exact number of parks is as clear as mud.”

FDP held a fundraiser in late October, but the organization still needs additional financial support from the public. “We need $20,000 to fight this case. Our attorney, John Case of Benson and Case Attorneys, is working for us pro bono. There are expenses for filming depositions and court costs. Donations will be the only way this trial can happen,” Lewis said.

Sierra Club support

Mat Elsner, chair of Sierra Club’s newly formed Rocky Mountain Chapter Denver Metro Network, says Sierra Club members should stand against the Hentzell Park land swap and the potential development of other urban parks. He understands that once any open natural space is developed, it is gone forever.

Elsner encourages all Sierra Club members to oppose the development of Hentzell Park and the possible development of other city parks and open natural spaces.

“While we understand that the City Council and Mayor Hancock have to balance Denver’s competing needs, there are alternative places where schools can be built,” Elsner states. “We can’t just build a new open space or park—there just isn’t much undeveloped land left. If you value the open space that Denver still has, you need to help protect it, which to us means opposing the Hentzell Park land swap.”

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