Denver, CO

DougCo could use open space tax money to confiscate Denver park

Mike McKibbin

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A bison in Denver's Daniels Park. Douglas County Commissioner George Teal said the county's open space tax could help buy the park.| Denver Mountain Parks Foundation

By Mike McKibbin/NewsBreak Denver | July 28, 2022

[DOUGLAS COUNTY, COLO.] — The Douglas County open space sales and use tax could pay some of the cost of obtaining Daniels Park through condemnation or eminent domain.

Commissioner George Teal made that statement during Wednesday night's live town hall.

The subject of the meeting was a potential November general election ballot question to extend the county's open space tax for up to 20 years. The commissioners will decide on Aug. 23 whether to ask voters to extend the 0.17% open space portion of the county's 1% sales and use tax until 2044. It is due to end by 2024.

Teal responded to a resident's question about his controversial proposal to take the City and County of Denver's park near Castle Pines as a form of retribution for that city's gun control measures.

"Could an extension of this tax be used for that acquisition? Certainly." Teal said. "We're looking at a number of things there, including condemnation powers."

Teal added the county would have to pay fair market value to acquire the property under state law, and the open space fund would likely provide some of that money. One estimate values the park's land at $800 million, more than the county's entire 2022 budget of $511 million.

Teal proposed confiscating the 1,000-acre park operated through an intergovernmental agreement between Denver and the county in June. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said he had no interest in discussing the plan. The Denver city charter also requires voter approval to sell any city park.

Fellow Commissioner Abe Laydon, who was not at Tuesday night's meeting, has voiced support for Teal's proposal. Commissioner Lora Thomas is opposed.

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Douglas County Commissioner George Teal. |Douglas County

Process continues

Teal said the county is still very early in talking to Denver officials.

"We'd also base our decision on recommendations from the parks board and open space (citizens committee)," he added.

Teal also noted the county would likely have to go into debt to acquire Daniels Park, which county voters would have to approve.

"But we'd probably use revenue that comes from this open space tax extension," he said.

Thomas repeated her opposition to the acquisition.

"I'm not interested in taking Daniels Park away from Denver," she said. "We're already using it for free."

Polite applause from the in-person audience followed Thomas' brief statement.

Opposition to extension voiced

Most comments and questions about the open space tax extension supported the proposal. One exception was Pete Smith, who said he lived next to the Dawson Butte open space property and had served on the Douglas County Land Conservancy board.

"I support open space but not this tax extension," he said. "I'm not against spending tax money on open space but the county should use general fund money. Our national parks are not funded by a special tax but through normal allocations from Congress. Special interest taxes like this one remove the decision-making powers from our elected officials."

Smith said such taxes are often subject to overfunding and abuse.

"Taxes should be available for any purpose elected officials deem necessary," he added. "This extension for 20 years ties the hands of future elected officials and administrators. No one is capable of predicting 10 years down the road, let alone 20."

Smith also criticized the extension proposal's municipal shareback as ill-defined. He would instead favor a proposal that returned the county's open space tax revenue to the county general fund.

'Legacy project' needs defined funding

Douglas County Open Space Initiative citizens group chair Micki Clark responded that open space is a "legacy project" that needs a definitive funding source.

"These kinds of projects aren't done in 3-4 years," she said. "Greenland Ranch started 20 years before it was acquired. Dawson Butte came up unexpectedly and oftentimes those who donate their land for open space wait for years" before formally turning over their property.

Thomas said studies she had read found voters were less likely to approve tax-related measures if they were not specific.

"They're more willing to vote for a tax with a dedicated use," she said. "I don't think citizens should always trust their elected officials. So when they know the county is putting their money in a specific bank account, they know that's where it will be spent."

Thomas also said the state of Colorado usually sets a tax sunset of 6-9 years, so she felt 10 years is a reasonable length of time.

"This proposal does have lots of different handcuffs that direct elected officials to spend money here and there," she added. "So maybe it makes more sense to have less restrictions and requirements to be more flexible but still know we're spending that money on parks, trails and open space."

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