Denver is getting sued over its plan to put stormwater detention on City Park Golf Course

City Park Golf Course. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The city of Denver is getting sued over its plans to run a major drainage project through northeast Denver and specifically to use city-owned golf courses for detention.

According to the city charter, park land is to be used for park purposes, and the Platte to Park Hill stormwater project is not a park purpose, attorney Aaron Goldhamer says in a lawsuit filed Monday in Denver District Court on behalf of John D. MacFarlane, a resident of northeast Denver and a former Colorado attorney general.

He goes on: The city has “obfuscated” its real purpose in designing the stormwater project to benefit the expansion of Interstate 70 and development around the National Western Stock Show and is asking residents to pick up the cost.

The lawsuit asks the court to stop the city from using City Park Golf Course for the project. It was filed a few hours before the Denver City Council met to vote on sewer and stormwater rate increases to pay for the project.

Named in the lawsuit are: Mayor Michael Hancock, Manager of Public Jose Cornejo and Executive Director of Parks and Recreation Allegra Haynes.

Nancy Kuhn, a spokeswoman for public works, said she couldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but using parks for drainage is common practice.

“I can say that the green infrastructure approach proposed in the Platte to Park Hill Project is considered a best practice nationally, and examples of dual-use parks that serve both recreational and drainage functions can be found across Denver,” she said.

Earlier this year, City Attorney Scott Martinez wrote a letter to Goldhamer saying there was not a problem.

“Other parks in Denver with stormwater management facilities include East-West Greenway Park at Stapleton, Bible Park, Parkfield Park, Lakewood Dry Gulch Park, Sloan’s Lake Park, Berkeley Park, Rocky Mountain Lake Park, Hentzell Park, Baby Yar Park, and Cook Park,” he wrote. “Simply put, the coexistence of drainage facilities within parks does not have to be a zero-sum equation.”

Goldhamer’s response: Those projects weren’t for the benefit of a major highway project also opposed by plenty of residents, and just because no one sued doesn’t mean they were all legal.

Assistant City Attorney David Broadwell told the City Council his office was prepared to defend the detention area and believes Denver would prevail.

“We’re not aware of any case law, any statutory law, in Colorado that flood control facilities cannot be co-loacted with park land or they are somehow incompatible, nor do we read anything in our home rule charter that would prevent this from occurring,” he said.

If they were found to be illegal, “it would be a significant revelation not just for Denver but for cities around Colorado,” he said.

Goldhamer said the approval of the fees doesn’t mean it’s too late to stop the project, and those fees can go toward other drainage projects.

“This is going to be an enormously expensive project for 100-year flood protection in a very specific part of the city,” he said. “There are storm events throughout the city, and this project is taking up a huge amount of resources that could go toward solving them.”

If the city didn’t do the Platte to Park Hill project, it would forfeit $63 million from CDOT that the state has promised to pay in an intergovernmental agreement related to the widening of I-70.

Opponents of the I-70 expansion have also filed a lawsuit — this one against the Environmental Protection Agency over changing the way it measures air pollution. Goldhamer said people are resorting to the courts because government is not responsive.

“There has been a lot of effort to deal with the state and the city on these projects, and there is the impression they’re just going to do what they want to do,” he said.