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A Watershed Partnership

2012-06-01, Feature, by Elizabeth Beard

A River Through Time 

Bikers on the East Bank Trail In a state where water resources are scarce, the South Platte River has been a focus of urban development in Colorado since the mid-1800s, as gold-prospecting camps and fur trading posts along the South Platte eventually grew and evolved into the city of Denver. Later, the river’s path served as a transportation corridor for railroads and highways, encouraging industrial development along the banks, especially in the Denver suburbs of Arapahoe County.

Now that the area’s population has multiplied to 2.5 million people, the South Platte’s story has entered a new chapter--as a major recreational resource. But first a few obstacles, ranging from rusting green school buses to missing trail connections, needed to be cleared away.

“We had trails that were being shared by walkers, bikers, and golf carts—it was a pretty dangerous situation,” Arapahoe County Commissioner Susan Beckman recalls. “We had junkyards. We had high density zoning which meant when development came back, we would have high density development up against the river.  We had limited access—people couldn’t get into the trail. We had areas that were very dangerous for people to get from one side of the river to the other because they had to cross on very, very busy streets. Trails needed to be connected to other trails and also to access to the river from the eastern part of our county….We had wear and tear on the river and areas that just needed restoration.”

A Taxing Situation 

In terms of funding, Arapahoe County and its various municipalities appeared to be well positioned to address land conservation and recreation along the river. In 2003, Arapahoe County citizens approved a sales tax to support open space, one of the last counties in Colorado to do so. Fifty percent of the sales tax is shared back to the cities for open space projects while the remainder is used by the county for land acquisitions and grants. The fund accumulated $18 million per year, according to county commissioner Beckman. The only problem was that no one was spending it.

“In 2007, growth stopped,” Beckman explains. “Cities weren’t cooperating with each other, and we have 13 cities. So any major amenity, like a river, canal, corridor, or creek would involve three, four, or five cities.  They didn’t have upfront money so they were holding onto dollars and they weren’t really willing to do the big projects…We were sitting on $50 million….So we started to say, ‘We need to change this program because it’s not working. How do we put that money back into the very urbanized areas where the need is, and where the opportunity is because growth had stopped?’”

Thus the South Platte Working Group experiment began, with a mission to put the sales tax funds to work within a fixed timeframe. Beckman reportedly kicked off the first meeting by plopping a huge prop money bag on the table, symbolizing the county’s up-front commitment of $3 million. Governed by clear parameters (see “Ground Rules” below) and benefitting from an economic slump that helped turn more landowners into willing sellers, the group spent $25 million in four years, preserving 50 acres of open space and parks, building six bridges, and creating eight new trailheads and numerous trail connections.

The county and city jurisdictions had help from a facilitator, as well as from experts in open space acquisition, transactions, and transformation—the Trust for Public Land (TPL). Hillary Merritt, TPL project manager, notes that the working group’s timing couldn’t have been better.

“The slow economic recovery on real estate side of things is making properties available that maybe we’re weren’t able to compete for previously,” Merritt says. “At the same time we have the availability of conservation dollars—the fact people want to see these things and are willing, in tough economic times, to extend the conservation sales tax.”

A Greener Greenway 

Enhancing the Mary Carter Greenway, running along the river from Littleton past the cities of Columbine Valley, Englewood, and Sheridan, was a major focus of the group’s efforts. According to Beckman, a few properties exemplify the improvements and conservation protections made along the river. The 120-acre Ensor property is a valuable area for development: It is zoned high density, and near transportation—and it is also right on the South Platte River. The working group assisted Littleton with the purchase of 7.8 acres of land closest to the river, providing a buffer for the river and the trail but keeping the rest of the property available for future economic development. This balance is crucial, according to Merritt.

“Having that combination of good, thoughtful development and good thoughtful, open space is important in all of these areas,” Merritt says. “There are definitely areas where development is appropriate and we have to have some development in order to help fund the places that are protected.”

One of the most unsightly parts of the trail system passed through the Murray auto salvage yard. Rusting buses had been spray-painted green in an attempt to camouflage them, but there was no disguising the fact the Dry Creek trail ran around an active junkyard. The 3.6-acre site has since been purchased by Littleton, the rusting vehicles have been towed away, and plans for a nature center, trailhead, and park are underway.

“It’s amazing how much better the river looks!” Beckman says. “We have a lot of people on the trails in Colorado. We have over 300 days of sunshine a year—people are outside a lot in Colorado.”

In most areas, a dual trail is needed to keep cyclists separated from walkers—trail usage is that high. A few areas even feature a third dirt trail that meanders through cottonwoods for nature lovers to enjoy. So pedestrian bridges were another key aspect of greenway improvements.

“We joke that at some of these ribbon cuttings at bridges that we could barely get the ribbon cut,” laughs Beckman. “You can’t stop the traffic….It makes you feel good though, because they were very needed projects.”

A Historic Flood 

Not all of the funds were used for land acquisition. The greenway is anchored at its southern end by the massive 889-acre South Platte Park in Littleton. South Platte Park has its own unusual history and serves as living demonstration of the river’s recreation and conservation potential.

In 1965, a massive flood destroyed millions of dollars of property in the Denver area, prompting the Corps of Engineers to construct the Chatfield dam and reservoir on the South Platte. But when the Corps wanted to also channelize the river below the dam, Littleton residents resisted.

“It took a lot of lobbying and effort on the part of the individuals involved to get Congress to give the Corps the authority to use money that would have been used to channelize the river to buy land for a floodplain park,” says David Lorenz, director of the South Suburban Park and Recreation District (SSPRD) that covers six cities in Arapahoe County. “The city did a bond issue, which the citizens supported, to buy the South Platte Park…. It was unique and it took a lot of work and effort but it created the wonderful South Platte Park, rather than having the area be channeled, and it also stopped the area from being developed.”

Today, South Platte Park is recognized as a National Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. The park is owned by the city of Littleton and managed by SSPRD. Park amenities include miles of heavily used trails, five lakes open to fishing, and the historic Carson Nature Center. The nature center occupies a hand-hewn log cabin that has been upgraded into a green demonstration building. The working group has funded more $1 million in improvements to the park, such as improved accessibility, restrooms, a native plants garden, and an outdoor presentation area.

To Be Continued 

“There’s definitely more work to be done along the river—the question is timing,” Hillary Merritt of TPL says. “There were certainly projects we would like to have seen completed in the first phase but the landowners just weren’t ready to make changes. There’s still a lot of industrial activity along the river….There are difficulties in finding replacement properties if they do want to continue the same activities, like a recycling center and waste management.”

Beckman is currently organizing the South Platte Working Group Phase II, which will include river bank restoration, boat chutes, and an emphasis on master planning a long-term vision for coordinating open space and natural resource planning in the county. And the county has committed another $3 million to the effort.

“We’re doing the river restoration project with the city of Littleton and the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District and we’re bringing the river back to life,” says David Lorenz of SSPRD. “We’re going to scoop areas that are deeper, so there’s pools and there’s a place for fish to live when the water flow comes down, and it puts the river back into a more natural channel….It will probably make it better for boating because there will be more water in the main part of the channel….On a hot summer day, everything that floats is out there; it’s a wonderful amenity.”

Perhaps the working group’s greatest accomplishment is shifting local jurisdictions to a more regional way of thinking. Two more conservation working groups—the High Line Canal and Cherry Creek Basin--are using the same model that has been established in Arapahoe County.

“We’re here as a support mechanism—the cities did most of the work. But the working group brought intensity, it brought enthusiasm, and it brought a sense of urgency and focus to the river corridor that wasn’t there before,” Beckman says. “You get down to the river and you would think you were out in the middle of the mountains—it is just beautiful.”

Elizabeth Beard is Managing Editor of Parks & Recreation.

Accompanying Article:
Ground Rules

To get everyone on the same page, the South Platte Working Group created and agreed upon guiding principles. Members wrote a mission, vision, and strategic objectives that formed a purpose statement that was signed by each agency. While this was not an intergovernmental agreement, it did commit the jurisdiction to supporting the initiative.

Ground rules identified what the group would and would not do. Some entities were concerned that parks and open space would supersede economic development, so the group agreed that land-use authority would remain within each jurisdiction and the use of eminent domain was prohibited. In addition, decisions were made by consensus, not by vote.

Hiring a facilitator kept all members on equal footing. No jurisdiction could dictate another’s plans.

Membership: The South Platte Working Group consisted of 12 active members with additional stakeholders along the way. Members included: Arapahoe County; Cities of Cherry Hills Village, Columbine Valley, Englewood, Greenwood Village, Littleton, and Sheridan; the South Metro Land Conservancy; South Suburban Park and Recreation District; South Suburban Park Foundation; the Arapahoe County Open Space and Trails Advisory Board; and Trust for Public Land. Additional stakeholders included: Colorado Water Conservation Board, Great Outdoors Colorado, Trout Unlimited, Urban Drainage and Flood Control District, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Key to the group’s success was having one employee and one elected official from each jurisdiction serve on the group. The two-prong member approach tackled issues faster, providing political weight and staff expertise. When one entity encountered a roadblock, members brainstormed solutions. At times, a couple calls from elected officials would remove the block and pave the way for progress.

Project List: To establish a master project list, each jurisdiction identified projects ranging from land acquisitions and park enhancements to trail connections. The group created rating criteria and ranked the 20 projects by level of importance (referring back to the purpose statement).

Creating Public Support: Additional funding was needed to get the projects off the ground, but that money wouldn’t come without public support. Arapahoe County worked with the media to increase awareness. Stories about the group’s regional goal to preserve and enhance the river corridor ran in newspapers, which raised awareness and resulted in increased public support.

Pooling Resources: A major benefit of the working group was that it saved time and money – creating greater organizational capacity. Members and partners provided an array of expertise. From coordinating grant applications and land acquisition negotiation to the monitoring of conservation easements, conservation partners saved the working group time and offered additional expertise. No single entity carried the entire burden of work and subcommittees completed much of the work outside of meetings.

Funding: The regional partnership increased the working group’s competitiveness in accessing additional funds. The Arapahoe County $3 million pledge was matched with $16 million from project partners, including $3 million from SSPRD. This regional commitment helped secure a $5.25 million legacy grant from Great Outdoors Colorado as well as various in-kind donations.

--Nichole Parmelly, Arapahoe County Communication Services Specialist  

Accompanying Article:
Going GOCO

Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) receives 50 percent of the net proceeds of the Colorado Lottery, with the remainder of the lottery proceeds going to local governments for open space (40 percent) and state parks (10 percent). GOCO’s funding is capped but adjusted for inflation; anything in excess of around $56 million must go the rural school construction fund. GOCO divides its share of the proceeds into roughly equal proportions for four programs: wildlife resources managed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, state park recreation resources, competitive grants, and competitive matching grants. Since 1994, GOCO has awarded $690 million for more than 3,000 projects in the state.

GOCO’s $5.2 million Legacy Grant to the South Platte Working Group was a competitive matching grant for projects that cover multiple jurisdictions at a regional scale. River corridors are major focus of such GOCO grants.

“We have heard over and over that we need to protect rivers and provide access,” says Lise Aangeenbrug, GOCO’s executive director. “They are major focal points for communities.”

The South Platte River Working Group is just one of three projects along the South Platte, covering the river from agricultural areas to downtown Denver. Connections from the industrial to the natural, connections through highly populated areas, and connections between communities are some of the compelling reasons for GOCO grants for the South Platte, according to Aangeenbrug. The grants are deliberately set up to encourage communities to work together in order to get more funding.
GOCO’s future plans include ramping up funding for trails in response to public demand and working with schools to provide more recreation close to home, according to Aangeenbrug. But GOCO’s effects can be seen all across the state.

“It’s made an incredible difference in the quality of life of all 54 counties,” she says. “From mini-grants for playgrounds to large acquisitions, there are trails and parks close to home everywhere.”

--Elizabeth Beard

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I have been very pleased to be able to help accomplish this great project, and look forward to continue. Cliff Mueller