Open Space at 40

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In 1972, residents saw rooftops encroaching on landscapes, so they created the open-space system as their gift to future generations

By Vicky Gits

When development threatened to turn their paradise into parking lots, the people of Jefferson County decided to preserve the beautiful landscapes they treasured before open land became subdivision material.


Nov. 7, 2013, will mark the 40th anniversary of the day Jeffco voters agreed to enact a 0.05-cent sales tax to fund a program that would preserve some of the scenic peaks, outcrops, meadows and streams that define our county from the mountains to the plains.

Somewhat experimental in its day, the sales tax has produced a first-class portfolio of 28 open-space parks that have gone a long way toward keeping Jefferson County’s scenery more or less intact. 

The countywide tax promised to support the purchase of “land in its natural state” as well as “greenbelt and agricultural buffer zones,” “wild rivers” and “wilderness areas,” according to the resolution on which the referendum was based. 

The sales tax was conceived of and promoted by PLAN Jeffco, a grassroots organization founded by a group of citizens in 1972 in the wake of a League of Women Voters study on land use. 

“(PLAN Jeffco was) one of the first in the country, and they thought it out very well,” said Joanne Ditmer, a Denver Post columnist who has been writing about land-use issues for 51 years. “They had a lot of citizen support and the support of the government. They had some very determined and some very savvy people. They are very focused.” 

In 1967, PLAN Boulder and Boulder County residents became the first in the country to approve a sales tax — 0.4 cents — for open space, according to the Boulder Open Space website. 

Today, Jeffco’s half-cent tax generates about $34 million a year. Combined with $160 million in funds from bonds issued in 1999, the tax is largely responsible for funding a beloved portfolio of parks, consisting of 52,000 acres and 210 miles of trails open to the public for free. 

Residents have supported the tax at the ballot box. In Jeffco Open Space parks, the trails are well-maintained, the views are inspiring and the variety is endless — providing a backcountry feel that’s close to home. The restrooms are amazingly clean. The parks are widely considered to be one of the attributes that make Jeffco a desirable place to live. 


Paying for preservation

Places like Mount Falcon, Elk Meadow, Apex, Centennial Cone and North Table Mountain Open Space parks owe their existence to the foresight and vision of a small group of citizen pioneers who came together in a Lakewood living room in 1971 and joined forces as PLAN Jeffco.

Today the county manages the properties through the Open Space and Parks Division, but PLAN Jeffco continues to serve as a watchdog, think tank and support system for the program as a whole.

The open-space tax provided the mechanism for buying land on the open market from willing sellers and gaining control of it early before it became super-expensive. 

“Passing the open space proposal will remove the threat we hear so often these days, that soon the county will be a sea of rooftops, even up to the mountains, without the relief of bare hillsides, trees or streams,” says a PLAN Jeffco campaign brochure from 1972. 

Over 40 years, the half-cent tax has generated nearly $755 million to spend on land, maintenance and various improvements, according to Jeffco Open Space. Of that amount, municipalities received $239 million, or 32 percent, of the revenue, and the county received $515.12 million, or 68 percent. 

The municipalities — namely, Arvada, Golden, Lakewood, Lakeside, Littleton, Morrison, Mountain View, Westminster and Wheat Ridge — receive allocations based on their number of car registrations. 

In 2011, the sales tax generated a total of $33.8 million, of which $12.9 million was debt service, and $10.6 million went to the cities for property and parks. The budget supports a full-time staff of 96, aided by a generous volunteer staff of hundreds. 


Saving open space

Over the first 15 years of its existence, the budding program faced challenges from parties who viewed the open-space coffers as a funding source for public buildings and conventional parks with baseball fields, in addition to a protector of wild land and scenic landmarks. 

“We are not any of us anti-development. We are about saving the beauty and glory and magnificence that are the Rocky Mountains. We don’t want them spoiled. Once you build, it’s impossible to unbuild. We want to save the lands and have development in between,” said Carol Karlin of Lakewood, who held the first meeting of open space supporters in her living room in fall 1971.

Karlin got involved in the movement as a member of the Jefferson County League of Women Voters, which had conducted a land-use study showing open space cost taxpayers less than developed properties, even though it didn’t generate property-tax income. 

“We decided to form an organization to promote the idea of purchasing open space for the public to be kept in perpetuity. We built trails, but they are non-motorized trails,” Karlin said. The organization became PLAN Jeffco.

Lookout Mountain resident Margot Zallen also was at the meetings in Karlin’s living room. Since then she has been a tireless spokeswoman, advocate and leader. She has been the chair of PLAN Jeffco since 1993. She was also the chair from 1980 to 1981 and vice chair from 1981 to 1992. 


A grassroots victory in 1972

The campaign to persuade voters to approve the half-cent sales tax was a solid success in a short time frame. Beginning with the living-room meetings in the fall of 1971, the process concluded a year later in the November 1972 election, when the measure passed decisively, 51,140 to 42,309. 

Organizers mobilized hundreds of high school students in a massive, door-to-door campaign, passed out 72,000 fliers and visited with dozens of community groups. 

Within a couple of years, the program had purchased its first properties: the Hogback where Alameda Parkway crosses C-470 near the Dinosaur Ridge museum; 1,490 acres on Mount Falcon west of Morrison; and Hiwan Homestead, a historic estate in Evergreen. 

The lengthy resolution that fleshed out the details behind the ballot question was largely the work of PLAN Jeffco members, because county staff couldn’t do it and PLAN Jeffco had volunteer lawyers and wordsmiths. 

PLAN Jeffco agreed to revenue sharing with the cities, although it maintained that most of the available land was in the counties. “While the cities contain 78 percent of the population, they only include 8 percent of the area,” PLAN Jeffco’s John Litz wrote.

There were two main components to the enabling resolution other than the sales tax:

• The county received half of the proceeds and the municipalities received an allocation according to the number of car registrations per city. 

• A 10-member advisory board was created to guide the county commissioners and the open space administration. The county commissioners appointed the membership, which consisted of three at-large representatives and three each from the cities and the county; the final member would represent a recreation district. 

The commissioners who voted in favor of putting the issue on the ballot were Jack Trezise, Joe B. Lewis and Bill Huntsbarger.

The movement benefited hugely from the expertise of Mike Moore of Evergreen, who was tapped to manage the open-space sales-tax campaign. An entrepreneur and former candidate for state representative, Moore had the needed skills. 

“I called up Mike, and he didn’t hesitate. He did a superb job. He’s personable, bright, a superb organizer. People want to work for him. He understands how to get them to work together,” Karlin said.

PLAN Jeffco sold the idea to the commissioners on the grounds that the program would be a jewel in the crown of Jefferson County, Karlin said. Plus, they were impressed with the caliber of the people on the PLAN Jeffco board.

“The night it passed, we got calls from all over the United States at the house. It was written up in Newsweek and Time,” Karlin said. “We were hugging each other and jumping up and down.”  

People voted yes because they liked the story their brochure was telling, Moore said. “PLAN Jeffco and the campaign we put together was opening the vision of the population to how do we maintain what we all love. I’m sure most of us who have moved to Colorado have come because it is so beautiful and for its climate, its mountains and its lifestyle,” he said.

“We talked about the things that people saw positively and loved so intuitively, but hadn’t reflected and focused on how to preserve this for our children,” Moore said. 

In 1972, Moore was elected the first chairman of PLAN Jeffco and was chair of the Open Space Advisory Committee for five years. 


Save Open Space 1 — 1978

The years after the sales tax passed in 1972 were formative and uncontroversial, and PLAN Jeffco was less active.

But the group mobilized again in 1978 after county commissioners spearheaded three unfriendly amendments to the open space sales-tax resolution. The proposed amendments reflected the ongoing sense among the various cities that they should control more of the open space money.

“They were only looking internally. They were new cities, and they had their own needs. They weren’t interested in the mountain backdrop,” said Zallen. 

The amendments could have paved the way for the cities to spend open space money to build park playgrounds, tennis courts and park buildings and create a 50-50 revenue split.

PLAN Jeffco mobilized a successful campaign against the measures, again under Moore’s leadership. It was the first “Save Open Space” election campaign of a total of three that PLAN Jeffco undertook in 1978, 1980 and 1998. 


Save Open Space 2  — 1980 

— the jail proposal

Voters decisively rejected the 1978 amendments, but the rift wasn’t healed. In 1980, commissioners proposed splitting the open-space proceeds for up to 16 years and using the money to build a new $18 million jail, as an alternative to increasing property taxes.

“Open Space was becoming popular, but it wasn’t the icon that it has become,” Zallen said. “So they looked at this program that was bringing in millions of dollars. They thought people didn’t want to pay any more taxes.” 

The county launched an advertising campaign to justify its jail proposal. PLAN Jeffco threatened to file a lawsuit against the commissioners on grounds they failed to provide voters with both sides of the issue. 

But the county commissioners filed a lawsuit first, saying PLAN Jeffco was illegally interfering in efforts to solve the jail-crowding problem. (U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch later dismissed the case.) 

In the ensuing media frenzy, it looked like a case of David-versus-Goliath, said Zallen, who was personally served with a summons to appear in court the following day. “It was big government going after the little guy. … We were just a group of citizens looking at saving land for parks. We didn’t deserve to get sued in federal court and brought into a lawsuit on jail conditions.” 

In the November 1980 election, the jail-diversion referendum failed by a decisive margin, 82,600 to 70,104. 


The rise and fall of leisure services

It was not, however, a total victory for PLAN Jeffco. In the same election, voters approved a proposal favored by the cities and opposed by PLAN Jeffco, which allowed the open space sales-tax revenue to be used for construction, maintenance and management of park and rec facilities, as opposed to being limited to raw land and simple access.

Campgrounds at White Ranch and Reynolds parks, sports facilities at Clement Park, publicly owned athletic fields, playgrounds, swimming pools, golf courses, picnic shelters, restrooms, recreation centers and regional parks and trails all have been paid for with open-space funds on the merits of that 1980 amendment.

In the mid-’80s, Open Space purchased 220 acres southeast of South Wadsworth Boulevard and West Bowles Avenue near Columbine High School for $4.9 million, with $8 million of improvements planned for the new Clement Park. 

The Open Space Division hired a recreation director and formed a leisure services department with the intent of running park activities. But the idea of running a park empire with organized sports activities offended not only PLAN Jeffco, but also other local recreation districts, according to news reports at the time. 

In the aftermath, PLAN Jeffco created an “ad hoc committee” with a wide representation of county leaders. After a year of study and debate, the committee filed a 1987 report accepted by the Advisory Committee. It concluded:

• Land acquisition should be the first priority.

• The current 68/32 percent county/city revenue-sharing split should be maintained.

• Scenic land and simple amenities should be valued over swimming pools, golf courses and indoor recreation centers. 


First era of acquisition 

From 1972 to 1989, the open space tax paid for “saving-by-acquisition” of 25,000 acres in both the cities and the mountains. 

It was an impressive feat for a fledgling movement. But PLAN Jeffco wasn’t in a mood to rest on its laurels. The group launched a third campaign to persuade voters to finance the purchase of another huge chunk of desirable acreage using borrowed money.

With passage of a countywide referendum in 1998 enabling the county to sell $160 million of open-space bonds, Jeffco residents set off a second era of acquisition, setting up the preservation of the mountain backdrop, the North and South Table Mountains, and Clear Creek Canyon.  

Jeffco Open Space parks, with acreage

Unincorporated area

Alderfer/Three Sisters, 1,129

Apex Park, 691

Cathedral Spires, 404

Centennial Cone, 3,279

Clear Creek Canyon, 3,117

Coal Creek Canyon, 2,778

Crown Hill, 242

Deer Creek Canyon, 1,631

Elk Meadow, 1,384

Elk Meadow Dog Off Leash Area, 107

Flying J Ranch, 415

Foothills Business Park, 14.3

Hildebrand Ranch, 1,493

Hiwan Homestead Museum, 2

Hogback, 615

Lair o’ the Bear Park, 392

Lookout Mountain Nature Preserve, 110

Matthews/Winters, 2,238

Meyer Ranch, 517

Mount Falcon, 2,330

Mount Galbraith, 878

Mount Glennon, 332

Mount Lindo, 824

Mount Tom/Van Bibber Headwaters, 464

North Table Mountain, 1,970

Pine Valley Ranch, 884

Ralston Creek, 689

Ramstetter West, 71

Ramstetter/Crawford Gulch, 417*

Reynolds Park, 1,955

South Table Mountain, 842

South Valley, 995

Stafford Hogback, 116

Van Bibber, 133

Welchester Tree Grant, 20

White Ranch, 4,253

Windy Saddle, 882


City properties

Arvada, 1,859

Edgewater, 17

Golden, 179

Lakewood, 2,460

Morrison, 105

Mountain View, 0.35

Westminster, 3,048

Wheat Ridge, 346


Park and rec/metro districts

Apex, 36

Columbine Knolls-Grove Metro, 17

Evergreen, 44

Foothills, 1,045

Ken-Caryl Ranch Metro, 203

Pleasant View Metro, 66

Prospect, 31



Jeffco Fairgrounds, 32

Beaver Ranch, 445

Senate Bill 35 (unincorporated), 69

Trails, 22

*Conservation easement