Celebrating 35 years of success with open space and trails

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 3/4/20

The City of Westminster is celebrating 35 years of the successful open space, trail development and park/recreation facilities enhancements program. Certainly the city and its residents should join …

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Celebrating 35 years of success with open space and trails

Posted

The City of Westminster is celebrating 35 years of the successful open space, trail development and park/recreation facilities enhancements program.

Certainly the city and its residents should join hands and celebrate this fairly unique program among Colorado as well as U.S. communities, so some celebrating is in order! As Open Space Manager Rod Larsen stated in a recent video on the city’s web site, “Westminster would not be what it is today without the Open Space program. We would not have the 3,100 acres (about 4.8 square miles) of open space preserved that we do today.”

Westminster voters had faith in acquiring open space

In the mid-1980’s, Westminster was growing at a rapid pace — which really isn’t much different from today, with the current amount of new development around us.

The difference is a lot more single family detached homes were being built back in the 1980s compared to the current hot market for apartment complexes. In 1985, the city administration saw the merits of preserving open space and building trails, given the accelerated rate of development that was quickly consuming developable land.

The City Council supported the program and placed a proposition on the ballot that November. Voters saw the merit and advantages of such a program, with 52% of voters giving their support for a city sales and use tax.

The initial tax authorization was for five years. In the fourth year, City Council returned to the ballot seeking another five year authorization. This time the measure passed by 68%.

And so it went, going back to the voters every few years successfully each time. The most recent authorization passed by almost 71% in 2006 which extended the tax to the end of 2032. By extending the tax this long, the city was able to issue 20 year bonds and accelerated land purchases before those sites were consumed by new development.

Keeping Westminster green

In conjunction with the city’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan at the time, the city established a goal of putting aside 15% of land as open space, trails, parks and golf courses. Today, Westminster residents enjoy having 20% of the land area in the city left in these designated land uses. It is exceptional among municipalities across the United States to be able to preserve this level of land in a community.

City Council needs to re-balance how open space funds are used

While the program’s results have been exceptional, there is concern with how the program is currently being managed. As I have written before, the City Administration has gone overboard with spending the bulk of the earmarked funds on operations and maintenance of the Open Space, trail development and parks/recreation facilities enhancements.

For example, in the 2019 Open Space Fund budget of $7.7 million, only $159,000 was budgeted for open space land acquisitions. This represents less than 1% of the Open Space Fund budge. Plus it won’t buy squat.

More than 20 full-time positions are funded out of this fund which was never the intent of the earmarked tax dollars. While maintenance on Open Space sites and trails became neglected along the way after 2005, the pendulum has swung too far, usurping land acquisition funds for too much operating costs not only for Open Space, but Parks and City golf courses as well. Annually, the city council authorizes a transfer of $250,000 to the golf courses fund.

A 2021 city budget opportunity to earmark more funds for open space

Through this op-ed column, Westminster voters learned of this unpublicized shift of how the $7.7 million were being spent each year. (I even found some council members who did not know this practice was on-going). Citizens raised this issue with City Council candidates which in turn caused a variety of responses from candidates. Responses rangedg from allocating up to 50% of the Open Space funds for land acquisitions to a guarded response from Mayor Pro Tem Anita Seitz saying she might be willing to consider land purchases on a case-by-case basis.

While the city council received a citizen request last fall pertaining to the amended 2020 City Budget to shift $1 million to land acquisitions, not a single council member supported any increase of funds to address the current practice of heavily funding maintenance over land acquisitions. If you share this concern of land acquisitions going dormant — especially with the continuing aggressive land development activity the city council is supporting — you should let the city council know your concerns.

Too often such practices are out of sight; out of mind — even with city council members.

Coronavirus impacts more than you might think

Who would think that the current Coronavirus epidemic would find its way toward negatively impacting future oil production projections?

Mark Papa, CEO of Centennial Resources Development headquartered in Denver, sees global oil demand slowing this year as well as “Coronavirus-induced low oil prices” to stay put.

“The situation is likely to permanently slow the growth rate of U.S. shale oil production,” Papa said.

His firm, which had $944.3 million in revenue in 2019 with $16.4 million in profits, is pulling back its capital investments by $252 million this year compared to 2019 and as reducing the number of oil rigs for new well drilling. And London-based energy company BP has predicted that “… global oil demand will fall 500,000 barrels a day this year.”

So, while there was hope among the oil and gas extraction companies that crude oil might hit $65 per barrel this year, that particular rainbow has left the park. Further cuts by U.S. oil and gas companies could well see personnel lay-offs in the near future.

Shrinking available land for development

Next week, I will be unveiling very concerning information on how much vacant developable land is left within Westminster’s city limits. This becomes all the more important when looking beyond the next 5-10 years. For a city to have very little — if any — remaining developable land is stagnating, such as we have seen with the City of Northglenn. Any economy needs a certain amount of growth.

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media. You can contact him at bcjayhawk68@gmail.com.

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