The Denver City Council said OK to a question on raising sales taxes for homelessness for the November ballot, but members weren't as ready to let voters have a go at protecting open space in the Park Hill neighborhood Monday night.

The council unanimously voted to refer a sales tax question to the ballot to raise $40 million a year for homelessness programs, combined housing and shelter capacity as well as services to support job training and mental and physical health.

The mayor's office said Monday night that the tax would cost the average household about $5.25 per month.

“Together, we’re pulling every lever available to help people and ensure that episodes of homelessness are brief and one-time occurrences,” Mayor Michael Hancock said in a Monday night statement.

Land use along Colorado Boulevard was much more heavily debated, before going on the shelf.

Council members chewed on a conservation easement adopted by a citywide vote in 1997, putting in $2 million to preserve 155 acres of east-side property that includes a historic golf course owned by developers. The proposed ballot issue would require voter approval for commercial and residential development.

The council voted 10-3 to send the measure back to a committee to hash out questions, which likely delays the measure beyond the next election.

Councilman Kevin Flynn said the question needed more work. He suggested it go to the Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, then to the Finance and Government Committee before coming back to the full council for reconsideration.

"I think the discussion here more than adequately shows why this needs to go back to committee," he said. "Every member of council has had to ask clarifying questions. There's confusion about it."

Save Open Space Denver, the group behind the proposed measure, considered gathering petitions to qualify for the ballot, but because of the pandemic opted to take the issue to the council, instead.

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Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca carried it.

Glendale-based Westside Investment Partners bought the property last year for $24 million, including $6 million from a lawsuit settlement between the city and the golf course's previous owner. Two years remain in a three-year agreement signed last November with the city to figure out how to use the property.

"It is the quintessential sweetheart deal," CdeBaca said Monday night, before comparing it to other property values in the area. She estimated the potential return to developers at "well over a billion dollars," given market prices for developable property.

"This is one of the last pockets of Denver that has a substantial Black community, and this Black community is predominantly made up of our Black elders, who are homeowners, who have repeatedly called us and asked for help with rising property values and consequently constantly rising property taxes," she said.

"They're being pushed out as the neighborhood is right now. That's without the park being sliced up and sold off at market rates." 

Former Mayor Wellington Webb is part of that group that wants the measure on the November ballot.

Webb said in an op-ed in May that "it infuriates me that some people are trying to spin an open space issue into a racial divide. They are attempting to pit neighbor against neighbor and create a narrative that nobody outside of the Park Hill neighborhood cares that Denver's last large tract of open space could turn into another concrete jungle."

He said the 155 acres of open space at the Park Hill Golf Course is as important as the city's mountain parks "and other land our forefathers had the wisdom to purchase and set aside for generations. What if their attitudes had been similar to some of our council representatives today? Red Rocks likely would be a subdivision."

"I'm urging the Denver City Council to place this issue on the November ballot because all voters should have a say," Webb wrote.

Colorado Politics senior political reporter

Joey Bunch is the senior correspondent and deputy managing editor of Colorado Politics. His 32-year career includes the last 16 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and he is a two-time finalist.

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