Denver to Vote on Three City Council Initiatives

By Eric Heinz

Denver voters will have three questions to decide in the April 4 municipal election, which include tweaks to the city’s zoning charter as well as the Board of Adjustment, and they will decide whether to lift a conservation easement on the former Park Hill Golf Course to make way for large development.

2M: Board of Adjustment

The bill was brought forth by District 1 Councilmember Amanda P. Sandoval and At- Large Councilmember Robin Kniech as well as Zoning Administrator Tina Axelrad. Sandoval described this as “phase two” of modernizing the Board of Adjustment after the City Council approved a reorganization of it in 2022.

The Board of Adjustment essentially hears appeals for zoning and building adjustments that have been administratively denied.

Measure 2M reads as: “Shall the Charter of the City and County of Denver be amended concerning zoning to remove existing Charter language regarding the Board of Adjustment and require that the procedures for appeals, variances, and exceptions from the zoning code be addressed in city ordinance instead of in the Charter?”

“What we confirmed … is that we can’t actually change the way the (Board of Adjustment) work is done without modernizing and updating the charter,” Kniech said. “That would actually change the details of how the work is done.”

What the ordinance asks is whether to strike out a long section of the charter and replace it with order that the council will draft a new set of responsibilities for the board that include appeals for when someone alleges an error of a decision made by an administrative official, variances from the strict application of zoning regulations and a set of exceptions to those rules.

If the ballot measure is passed, Kniech said an amendment to modernize the Board of Adjustment’s work could come before the council by June. That would include changes to the appeals process, variances to the city code, and a guide for policies and procedures.

The reason for the ballot measure is because the city council can’t make those adjustments unless the city charter is first approved to be changed by the voters.

If the measure passes, City Council has proposed what it called “common sense changes,” like length of Board of Adjustment representative terms and allow for some administrative staff approvals of certain exceptions.

The goal of the ballot measure is to allow the council to expand on the city’s definition of a 100-year-old “hardship” standard to allow consideration of “reasonable requests” that promote preservation of existing buildings, sustainability, affordability or other city-adopted plans, according to a presentation on the measure. This would allow for greater efficiency by managing most common, non-controversial minor requests as administrative while prioritizing Board of Adjustment review for complex, more nuanced or larger variances, according to the presentation.

2N: City Zoning Authority

Measure 2N reads as: “Shall the Charter of the City and County of Denver be amended to clarify City Council’s authority regarding zone districts and to require that zoning protests can only be initiated by property owners in Denver?”

Essentially, if voters approve the ballot question, which was also brought forth by Sandoval and Kniech, it would clarify the council’s authority on zone districts, but it would not apply in this instance to historic or business improvement districts or any other special district.

“Keeping your charter up-to-date is a tough task because it becomes important and urgent when something conflicts with policy that matters to people on the ground, when folks are wanting to get a variance to update their property and they can’t because the charter is outdated,” Kniech said.

Certain legal challenges in recent years, particularly Sandoval alluded to in her district when a historic district was established in Packard Hill that was recently reversed by a court decision, have made this adjustment necessary.

She said she hopes the changes will resolve future issues such as ones that pertain to zoning districts. The bill would also prohibit the ability of people living outside the city of Denver to file petitions or appeals against zoning district decisions and would only allow Denver property owners to do so.

City Council members said they welcome anyone to speak at public comment sessions regarding any issues, but only Denver property owners could file protests against them.

Measure 2O: Park Hill Conservation Easement

The voters will decide whether the easement can be lifted to make way for several thousand residences, some of which would be income-restricted, as well as a grocery store, retail and other businesses. The developers have also pledged to keep 100 acres of the property as open park space.

Measure 2O reads as: “Shall the voters of the City and County of Denver authorize the release of the City-owned conservation easement on privately owned property known as the Park Hill Golf Course, which requires the land to be used primarily for golf related purposes, and allow for commercial and residential development, including affordable housing, and public regional park, trail and open space?”

Save Open Space Denver, along with 19 other plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit in February against the city, Denver City Council and a subsidiary of the Park Hill Golf Course developer Westside Investment Partners, Inc., which is working with The Holleran Group on the project. Colette Carey sent out a prepared statement on the lawsuit on behalf of EJ Reilly & Associates, which is working with Save Open Space Denver.

This lawsuit objects to the City Council approving Westside’s rezoning application and what they see is “giving the green light to a development and land exchange agreement” between the city and Westside.

SOS is arguing that getting rid of the conservation easement is illegal because “a conservation easement cannot be extinguished under Colorado law without a court order that — based on changed conditions on or surrounding the Park Hill Golf Course land — it is now ‘impossible’ to continue fulfilling the open space and recreational conservation purposes of the conservation easement,” among several other issues.

Robert Greer, an eviction attorney who supports Measure 2O, said the lawsuit filed by Yes for Open Space is similar to the one filed in 2021, when the organization alleged the city could not work with developers on the project until the easement was completely lifted.

Greer said at its peak, Park Hill Golf Course used about 100 million gallons of water a year when it was in operation.

“People are acting like it’s a nature preserve, but there’s non-native grass, older trees, but the real issue is this is infill development, the opposite of sprawl,” Greer said. “If 2O fails, this parcel will be required to be a golf course indefinitely, and that’s the legal reality. It’s a bit of a contradiction — a conservation easement that requires it to be a golf course.”

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