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Jeffco Open Space at 40: Second era of acquisition doubles Open Space lands

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By Vicky Gits

The first 26 years of the Jefferson County open-space sales tax and three successful referendums at the ballot box proved that voters value open lands. In 1998 they showed how much by passing a measure that helped double the amount of scenery and public land in Jeffco’s Open Space park system.

In 1998, after voting the Open Space sales tax into existence in 1972, citizens approved a countywide referendum, based on a PLAN Jeffco proposal, to borrow $160 million to buy more land for preservation. The borrowing was to be paid back by the ongoing revenue from the half-cent-per-dollar sales tax without raising the levy. 

On the heels of a failed effort to turn South Table Mountain into a Nike corporate headquarters, the decision gave a major boost to the popular movement to protect the scenic mesas as public open space. 

Fueling a second wave of land purchases from 2001 to 2011, the money also preserved most of Clear Creek Canyon, which is to become the site of a new segment of the Peaks to Plains Trail. 

By 1995, Open Space already had an impressive portfolio consisting of 18 major parks, 25,000 acres and more than 100 miles of trail. The half-cent sales tax generated about $23 million per year, up from about $3.9 million in 1975, according to Jeffco Open Space. 

By putting to work the $160 million in bond money (representing  $232 million in payback including interest) in addition, Jeffco has doubled its open space and park acreage to 52,000 acres as of 2013. 

Most of the land is accessible to the public, one reason Jeffco Open Space has been well supported by the community. 

“People can see where the money is going. They can see what they are getting and be able to use all these great places close to home,” said Tom Hoby, director of Jefferson County Parks and Open Space. 

 

Return of SOS

The 1998 referendum was the third “Save Open Space” campaign in PLAN Jeffco history and represented a bold effort to crank up the pace of acquisition without raising the sales tax. 

The process of getting the bond money began in the 1990s with a key analysis of property values and financing tools conceived by John Litz, one of the founding members of PLAN Jeffco. He was chair from 1982 to early 1993 and has been a member of the Open Space Advisory Committee since 1993.

“I went to a number of meetings on the master plan and realized they were way off on how far the money could go. They were using unrealistic land prices. So I built a model of what could be done with the money,” Litz said. “I carried it out for 20 years and included the maintenance cost for every new acquisition.”

In 1998, Litz presented a new model, arguing that with land prices going up between 7 and 12 percent a year and the interest rate on bonds at 5.2 percent, the sooner land could be acquired, the better. He also showed the money was there to maintain the purchased properties.

“The major thing (the borrowing strategy) did was allow you to buy some pretty big pieces, like Centennial Cone and parts of North Table Mountain,” Litz said.

Proponents targeted “key parcels,” including 5,400 acres within cities, recreation districts and unincorporated areas, such as the Wheat Ridge greenbelt, the Van Bibber trail system, the Mount Glennon Hogback, Fehringer Ranch, North and South Table Mountains and the mountain backdrop in general. 

“We needed to convince the commissioners that going into debt was OK,” said Litz. 

But the politically conservative commissioners were skeptical. One of them said, “ ‘We are Republicans, and Republicans don’t believe in going into debt,’ ” Litz recalled. 

Nevertheless, the commissioners agreed to put the proposal on the November 1998 ballot.

The Denver Post endorsed the referendum in October 1998, saying, “If the county must wait to collect tax revenue before making the purchases, it will take a quarter of a century. … By that time, the land either will cost more or may be lost to development.”

PLAN Jeffco launched a third campaign using the same slogan, “Save Open Space.” OSAC board members Greg Stevinson and Jan Wilkins led the campaign for the bond referendum to a decisive 72 percent victory in the November election.

Soon after the bonds were approved, Open Space announced a $9 million deal to save 929 acres of North Table Mountain owned by the Argentine Mine Co., or about 42 percent of the 2,120-acre mesa, according to a report in the Denver Post. North Table was one of the places PLAN Jeffco identified as a priority at the inception of the open-space tax. 

On Nov. 28, 1998, the Rocky Mountain News praised the deal, saying: “The speed with which Open Space officials have moved is impressive. Equally admirable has been the behavior of the entire Jeffco preservationist community in recent months. Confronted with the possibility of endless wrangling and even litigation over attempts to preserve North and South Table mountains, they chose the only responsible course: They decided to raise the money necessary to buy the threatened property at the market price from those who own it.” 

The bond proceeds enabled major investments such as Centennial Cone, parts of Clear Creek Canyon, South Table Mountain, and Hildebrand and South Valley parks in South Jeffco. Flying J and Reynolds parks in the 285 Corridor came on board, along with 756 acres of Alderfer/Three Sisters Park in Evergreen.

About 25 percent of the $160 million went to various municipalities over the years, according to Litz.

Section 16/Rocky Flats

In 2012, with the last of the bond money, Jefferson County was able to finance a $5 million contribution enabling the conservation of Section 16/Rocky Flats. The 617 acres on the northeast corner of Highways 93 and 72 had long been eyed by open space advocates.

As part of a complex deal for the 617 acres, Open Space funds paid $5 million, Boulder County $2 million, and the city of Boulder $2 million.

In December the parties turned the land over to the Fish and Wildlife Service as part of a deal in which Fish and Wildlife agreed to make a 300-foot strip of land on Indiana Street part of the future Jefferson Parkway. 

In 2010, the county commissioners, who have ultimate control of open space funds, made their participation contingent on Boulder dropping its opposition to the parkway. 

At the moment, the section is preserved as a wildlife refuge, while the parkway continues to be tied up in legal disputes over the Indiana Street component. 

As of 2013, all of the $160 million has been spent and about six years are left to pay off the first $100 million round of the borrowing, which consumes about $10 million to $12 million a year in interest payments. 

 

Peaks to Plains

The next few years of the open space story promise to be less dominated by acquisitions and more by a major trail construction project in Clear Creek Canyon west of Golden.

The vast, undeveloped drainage is the scene of an ambitious joint project, conceived in 2012, to build a concrete trail making about 5 miles of the river accessible to kayakers, runners, hikers and cyclists in three years. The trail will start at Mayhem Gulch trailhead and continue west to Clear Creek County.

In 20 years, planners envision the Clear Creek Canyon Trail as a key part of the Peaks to Plains Trail, stretching 65 miles from Loveland Pass to the South Platte River Trail in Adams County.

The projected cost of the 6-mile segment is $10.2 million, of which $4.6 million comes from Great Outdoors Colorado lottery proceeds, $4.5 million from Jefferson County Open Space, and $1.1 million from Clear Creek County. 

Rugged, forbidding and unpopulated, Clear Creek Canyon, accessed via U.S. 6 from Golden to Clear Creek County, has been on the PLAN Jeffco radar ever since the inception of the open space sales tax. It is valued as being one of the last undeveloped scenic canyons along the Front Range. 

In the late ‘80s, a citizen group called the Canyon Defense Coalition made up of 17 homeowner associations, with Jan Wilkins as chair, fought for six years to defeat a proposed gravel quarry on a key piece of land south of what is now Centennial Cone Park on the north side of the canyon. The county commissioners killed the proposal in the summer of 1992. 

With future bond money on the horizon, Open Space was able to sign a deal to purchase the property that became Centennial Cone Park from landowner Ren Goltra in 1999 for $18.8 million, protecting a large, strategically significant piece of canyon view and recreation property.

In 1992, PLAN Jeffco formally proposed the entire canyon be preserved. In 1994, PLAN Jeffco chair Margot Zallen sent a letter urging the Open Space Advisory Committee to be more aggressive in its efforts to acquire property on both sides of the canyon as a key component of the open space portfolio.

As of 2012, almost all the land on both sides of the canyon had been preserved, except for a large piece of other Goltra property at the mouth of the canyon that continues to be held in a family trust. 

 

Connecting the dots

In addition to building the Clear Creak Canyon Trail, Jeffco Open Space looks forward to connecting more parks with trails, linking kids to parks, and updating aging spaces such as Crown Hill Park in unincorporated Jeffco between Wheat Ridge and Lakewood.  

Sometimes updates cause controversy. In 2004 Evergreen residents rejected a steel bridge connecting Evergreen Lake to Main Street, eventually persuading Open Space to remove it. (The bridge now is in Golden’s Grant Terry Park at the mouth of Clear Creek Canyon.)

In 2012, Open Space targeted aging Crown Hill Park in Arvada for trail, restroom and other improvements, including nature-play areas and a pergola. But the play areas and shade structure irked some park users, who said the 242-acre Crown Hill Park is a wildlife refuge and should remain largely untouched.

In response to citizen concerns, Open Space suspended construction and is conducting an electronic survey and public meetings to flesh out a consensus.

“We have to go to the broader public. If they say no, then we probably won’t,” said Open Space director Tom Hoby. 

“This is all about the citizens of the county. We need to make sure we do what people want us to do … that we provide this quality experience, that we provide easy access to the parks,” Hoby said.

“People want us to continue to acquire property,” Hoby said. The consensus was that about half of the budget should go to acquisitions and half toward more trails, according to the citizen survey conducted in 2011.  

“We need to provide the balance between more land and providing access,” Hoby said.

More than 50 approved projects are on the books now, meaning staff has permission to negotiate with landowners with approval of the advisory board. 

“There’s a lot of properties that are part of the original vision on South Table Mountain and along Clear Creek Canyon,” Hoby said.

Hoby is focused on what he calls “heritage conservation areas” along the major watersheds, such as Coal Creek from Standley Lake to the county line, Bear Creek from Evergreen to Bear Creek Lake Park, and Deer Creek in Waterton Canyon. 

“Those are some focus areas, but it’s not exclusive,” Hoby said.

He envisions a 15- to 20-mile, soft-surface, multi-use trail from White Ranch north of Golden to Golden Gate Canyon State Park.  “It will be one of the most spectacular experiences in our whole trail system,” Hoby said.

In addition to trails, Hoby has his eye on youth. “Kids spend about seven hours a day in front of screens and seven minutes outdoors, so they have more connection with the screen than the natural world,” he said.

“If conservation is about perpetuity, we have to continue to work on cultivating the next generation of conservationists. That’s why you hear so many initiatives about getting kids active outdoors,” Hoby said. 

In conclusion, Hoby pointed out that it’s not always easy being the backyard of a major city like Denver. 

“Our system offers the closest foothills and mountain experience to the people in the largest population center in the state,” he said. “That’s part of our popularity. Figuring out how to create this experience that is safe and protects the natural resources is a constant challenge for us.”  

What $160 million in bond debt bought

A look at acquisitions by Jefferson County Open Space from 1998 to 2011.

(Source: Jeffco Open Space) 

 

Total amount $160 million

Approved by voters Nov. 3, 1998

 

Major acquisitions (Non-county managed properties shown in parentheses)

 

1998 - $100 million in bonds issued

Ramstetter/North Table, 274 acres, $2.3 million 

 

1999

Denver Water Board/Long Lake, 112 acres, $1.3 million (Arvada)

Centennial Cone/Goltra, 2,796 acres, $18.8 million

Clear Creek/Hayes-Angell, 429 acres, $2.5 million

South Valley Park, 448 acres, $4 million

Argentine Mine Inc./North Table Mountain, 906 acres, $9 million

Bear Creek Development Corp./Clear Creek, 1,310 acres, $4.9 million

Skyline Meadows Development, 40 acres, $1 million (Foothills Park and Rec) 

Ralston Development Co./Lacy, 1,527 acres, $13.5 million

Golden Properties/Coors Tech Rec Center, 63 acres, $2.6 million (Golden)

 

2000

Westminster City Park, 23 acres, $5.1 million (Westminster)

Denver Water Board/Fehringer Ranch, 49 acres, $1.2 million (Lakewood)

Leyden Lake, 394 acres, $1.3 million (Arvada)

Wheat Ridge/Einarson, 8.3 acres, $1.2 million (Wheat Ridge)

Esser/Whitlock, 0.55 acres, $1.08 million (Lakewood)

Fox/Whitlock, 1.2 acres, $1.33 million (Lakewood)

Leyden/PN/Arvada/Pearce, 66.5 acres, $1.8 million (Arvada) 

Coors Brewing/Greenbelt, 195 acres, $1.05 million (Wheat Ridge)

 

2001- 02 - $30.46 million in bonds issued

Hildebrand, 1,453 acres, $7.35 million 

YMCA, 445 acres, $1.25 million (Beaver Ranch Community Inc.)

Majestic View, 5.9 acres, $1.7 million (Arvada)

Alderfer/Three Sisters/Blair Ranch, 316 acres, $4.5 million 

Pioneer Park, 10.5 acres, $1.8 million (N. Jeffco Park and Rec)

Ralston Creek Conservation Easement, 619 acres, $2.27 million

 

2003-04

Columbine Knolls, 9 acres, $1.12 million, (Foothills Park and Rec)

Cathedral Spires Natural Areas, 80 acres, $164,525

Alderfer Three Sisters/State Land Board, 440 acres, $5.95 million

Denver Water Board/Fehringer, 135 acres, $1.7 million (Foothills Park and Rec)

South Table Mountain/Coors Brewing Co., 735 acres, $4.8 million 

 

2005-07 $29.54 million in bonds issued

Flying J Ranch, 58 acres, $750,250

Foss, 137 acres, $1.26 million

Mt. Tom/Van Bibber Headwaters, 464 acres, $3.005 million

Faller addition/Reynolds Park, 410 acres, $2.050 million

 

2008-11

Coal Creek Canyon Park, 70 acres CE, $216,216

Meyer Ranch Park, 60 acres, $935,000. 

Matthews Winters/Rooney addition, 19 acres, $1.44 million

Coal Creek Canyon/Cimarron, 5.6 acres, $2.312 million

Section 16 Rocky Flats escrow, 617 acres, $5 million

Coal Creek Canyon/Booth Land and Cattle, $1.5 million

 

Grand Total: 17,683 acres

Total $: $157,783,452