Westminster’s open space program: then and now

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Posted 9/11/19

Probably the most popular program the City of Westminster has ever implemented is the open space land and trails acquisition program which was initiated to cope with accelerated land development back …

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Westminster’s open space program: then and now

Posted

Probably the most popular program the City of Westminster has ever implemented is the open space land and trails acquisition program which was initiated to cope with accelerated land development back in the 1980s.

Just like the community is currently experiencing today, land was being purchased by development interests at an alarming pace. To preserve a portion of the land in the city as undeveloped open space and to procure trail corridors and protect view corridors, the city council sought voter approval of one-quarter of one percent sales and use tax.

The restricted tax money would also provide funds to rehab, expand and enhance existing developed parks. In November, 1985, Westminster voters overwhelmingly approved the initial five-year program.

Popular program runs through 2032

The program was an instant hit with the public. Each time the city council sought renewal of the program and of the tax, voters approved it by a wider margin of success.

Then the city decided to seek approval of extending the tax for 20 years so that bonds could be issued and the proceeds could be used to purchase more land quicker. Again, Westminster voters gave their hearty stamp of approval.

Currently, the voter-approved program and tax are authorized through December 31, 2032.

Open land area goal achieved

A goal of the program was to acquire sufficient land to keep at least 15% of the land area within Westminster’s city limits as open space, parks, golf courses and trails in perpetuity. That goal has been achieved and that puts Westminster in a special category among cities across America.

When considering only the open space land acquisition portion of the overall 15% goal, 3,167.19 acres have been purchased since 1986. That combined acreage is just short of five square miles! That is a very impressive success story.

According to staff records, more than $56 million in city open space tax funds were spent on the acquisitions along with another $24 million from other outside sources such as Jeffco Open Space and the Adams County Open Space Program.

Summary of acquisition activities

Thanks to the Open Space Division staff and especially Open Space Superintendent Joe Reale, I was given a complete listing of every open space purchase, trail corridor acquisition, easement and miscellaneous parcels.

I found that land acquisitions were limited in the late 1980’s as funds had to accrue to be able to make cash purchases. However, one 1989 purchase in particular that stands out in my mind - one that I handled - was the Ranch Open Space consisting of 18.8 acres on the south side of 120th Avenue and west of Pecos Street. This was land that was already under pressure to be developed for a retail center. Thankfully, we were able to complete the purchase and keep this highly visible site as open space with horses grazing on the property for many years.

This purchase is a good example of protecting open space and reducing developable land in the city.

The 1990s were an active time for acquisitions, with approximately 80 separate parcels purchased. From 2000 through 2010, approximately 120 separate parcel purchases were completed. And from 2011 to the present, 19 parcels consisting of 176 acres were acquired.

It is interesting to note that from 2017 to the present only two parcels have been purchased, totaling 349 acres. However, one of the parcels consisting of 345 acres owned by the Woman Creek Water Authority was converted from a land lease with the city to an outright purchase. The purchase cost of $1,631,625 and was divided between the city and Jefferson County. The 20-year lease was expiring and the city had to purchase it if they wanted to keep control. It is located on the far west side of the city beyond Standley Lake.

So, technically, that was not a net gain of open space under the city’s control.

Only $257,000 for new open space

I don’t know about you, but I was quite surprised to learn how the amount of open space land acquired had noticeably diminished over the last few years. I would speculate that there are numerous parcels of land that the open space program could and should still acquire. At the same time, it makes sense that the bulk of the desired parcels would have been acquired by now.

After reviewing the 2019 City Budget for the Parks, Open Space and Trails (POST) Fund, I noted that the vast amount of the projected $7,722,846 in tax and grant funds are NOT earmarked for open space land acquisitions. In fact, I found only $257,000 listed for land purchases in the General Capital Improvements Projects listing.

That was a shocker!

A breakdown of how $7.7 million of 2019 post funds is to be spent

Let me break it down for you on the city council-adopted 2019 POST Budget. Remember, we are talking about over $7.7 million of restricted revenues in a single year.

Personnel costs are shown at $1,912,669. This is quite puzzling to show such a high amount for salaries and benefits. I have a request into the staff for details on several parts of the budget, but the information was not available at the time of my deadline.

Commodities are listed at $206,955 for things such as weed sprays, fuel and fencing materials.

Contractual Services are shown to be $307,698. These would include services which are performed by non-city employees. Examples could include professional services and equipment repairs.

Capital Outlay is set at $209,000 which is rolling stock and other equipment.

There is a Transfer to Golf Courses of $250,000 each year which I have inquired about. The Debt Service of $1,748,319 is annual principal and interest payments on the previous mentioned bonds. The largest category of expenditures is Transfer to General Capital Improvement Fund (GCIF) which includes all capital improvements in various sub-categories for all city departments except for utilities like water and sewer.

A total of $3,088,205 is available for POST funds capital projects.

It is difficult to determine which projects are POST funded projects except for: $257,000 for land acquisition, $300,000 for Open Space Repair and Maintenance, $100,000 for Metzger Farm, $500,000 for Parks Renovation Program and $530,000 Park Maintenance.

I have a request into city staff for the complete list.

Is anyone surprised like I am?

The point I am making is the major shift in how the earmarked money for Open Space, Trails and Park Renovations has changed dramatically over the years, moving from from land acquisitions, trail development and park renovations to maintenance, repairs, debt service, capital improvements and personnel costs.

Meanwhile the tax rate remains the same. Is anyone surprised like I am? How many acres of open space did you think the city has been purchasing each year?

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.

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