Preserving Open Space—and My Sense of Humor

Edee Gail, Harmony Village, Golden, Colorado

Come see Harmony Village’s little “pocket park,” landscaped with native species; hike a nearby mountain trail; or maybe play a round of golf on the adjacent golf course. You may see and hear coyotes and meadowlarks, and you’ll certainly see lots of fat bunnies, whose population somehow stays ahead of both the coyotes and the resident mountain lion, who was recently seen peering in a neighbor’s living room window! -- D. L. W.

I grew up on an island in Michigan seeing ships from all over the world cruise right past our house. I loved looking across the vastness of the Detroit River and Lake Erie, and from an early age, I learned the sanctity of open spaces.

Years later, at a city council meeting in Boulder, a group called Ancient Forest Rescue was passionately attempting to persuade the city council to boycott Stone Container Corporation. They were cutting down the oldest trees in America to make two-by-fours to be sent to Japan at a loss to U.S. taxpayers. The leftover wood pulp was made into Domino’s pizza boxes and King Soopers and Safeway paper bags, all stamped with ecological arrows on them even though they were made from virgin wood.

I stood at the microphone telling of having spent eight years working for United Airlines, where I could fly around the world for $199. I told about what happens when you spend that kind of time in the air you see what is being clear-cut. You see that more than 95 percent of our ancient forests are gone. You recognize that you cannot stand a redwood back up or replace an ancient forest.

I spoke up not only on that day, but also on the day I was arrested and thrown in jail for defending our forests’ remaining old growth. My heart was in my stomach when I heard the cell doors of the women’s Durango prison echo as they all slammed shut. We six women arrested had our legs shackled as we were taken into court in bright-orange jumpsuits. Although I was found not guilty of trespassing on Forest Service land, I was charged $900 for attorney fees. I was innocent and it cost me $900? We risked our necks to protect the intrinsic value of this land, rich in biodiversity and history. We wanted it to be seen as something far more magnificent than profits.

When Robert and I first got involved with cohousing, I liked the idea that our home would be on the perimeter of the land, so I’d have a sense of space and a vista to take in. The idea of our emerging cohousing community buying land adjacent to open space was perfect. The cohousing standard of a common green where all can play and know they’re safe from traffic felt right too. Living in Golden with its open vistas all around us would be ideal. All was going according to my visions and hopes.

Little did I realize the extent to which the space around us would begin to shift and how we would need to get involved to preserve open, accessible land. My father used to say that above all else, keep your sense of humor. This has been great advice, along with my realization in recognizing that what is important to us defines who we are.

Space for Dogs

I tried to find my sense of humor when three neighbors decided they wanted dogs and didn’t feel they had room to keep them tied up at their own homes. Their vision was to have a dog yard out in what feels like the only open space left at the village—right near our house. I knew a chain-link fence would not be not my idea of how open space should feel or look, and the thought of four barking dogs just outside my window did not thrill me either. I thought, “There goes any sense of spaciousness.”

The night of the meeting about dogs, I felt like I was the only one out of twelve people who opposed three new dogs and a dog yard. This would make a total of eight dogs and I was thinking, “How can I possibly go against what the kids want and still get what I need? Am I the selfish one by wanting this open land and sense of tranquility? And why do dog owners think other people want to hear their dogs bark?”

Luckily, a solution was found by open communication. The facilitator had each of us say what we needed in order to make the dog scenario work. Three and a half hours went by before we reached consensus on an underground electrical fence that no one would see. The owners would pay for it and agree to be mindful when the dogs were barking and bring them inside. They also promised to be diligent poop-scoopers. This agreement was a victory for everyone involved. Later in the week, other neighbors thanked me for speaking up for what they didn’t have the nerve or time to share.

The Nineteenth Hole: A Public Park?

We moved into Harmony Village with five horses as neighbors just behind our house on Jefferson County Open Space. They grazed and roamed the openness, often stretching for better lunch on our side of a simple barbed-wire fence. They were able to canter and gallop on this wild acreage that swings around to the east behind a row of big trees on the property line. An old silo stands stoically on the hill, (which we were able to save from extinction with a few timely phone calls) and to the west of us are acres of old clay pits. The clay was mined and rode the rails to Denver, where it was made into brick. A gazillion years before any clay was dug, dinosaurs walked this land; a tyrannosaurus rex tooth was found in the clay pit, along with fossils of ferns and footprints more than 60 million years old. Somewhat ironically, the golf course is called Fossil Trace, maybe indicating that most of the fossils are now in the walls of Denver homes or jumbled up under the green fairways—only traces remain.

The thought of losing our coyotes, horses, history, and open space to men wearing madras slacks was a claustrophobic nightmare to me. At a city meeting in our common house, we were informed that only golfers would be allowed on the open space when the course opened. We did some research. According to Golf Digest, only 10 percent of the public plays golf. I knew that I was just one of that 90 percent who isn’t interested in the game, is too young, too old, or simply can’t afford it. I felt there must be someplace that the 90 percent could go to take in the green, open beauty of the soon-to-be-golf course. If we couldn’t be on it, at least we should have a place we could walk or ride our bikes to.

I invited various city planners over for lunch to propose the creation of a park in place of some of the golf course homes that were being planned. With the support of my neighbor Dave, I invited every city councilor over to see that this land would make the most beautiful park in Golden because of the 360-degree view of foothills, golf course, mesas, and mountains.

I invited the developer over so he could see what our cohousing community was about—clustered housing with common spaces that allow residents to feel that they have more space in their lives. We suggested how much more marketable his homes would be with a park available to the residents.

It was an afternoon of golds, from the turned cottonwoods lit up by the sun to the golden-yellow lentil soup. As we sat outside on the patio, all three of us laughed and joked, and he even asked for a tour of my house. Although he quickly nixed the idea of donating the land for a tax write-off, he didn’t slam the door on the idea of getting fair market value for several of his undeveloped lots. I don’t think he really expected us to convince the city to buy them.

When the mayor saw the land, he totally understood what our passion was about. He refused lunch yet was willing to sit and give us the low-down on the hoops we’d have to jump through to bring this to fruition. He stated the importance of getting a majority vote from the citizens’ parks and recreation advisory board before even thinking about the city council approving the developer’s $120,000 asking price.

We found out all too soon that the advisory board, guardians of city open space funds, might be a hard egg to crack. About six of us in the village pulled together a Neighborhood Park Packet for each voting official, and my husband, Robert, and I hand delivered the packets on his motorcycle.

Individually and in small groups, we courted each decision maker, walking the land with them. For many of our meetings, the weather was bleak, windy, and cold. Grays and browns are not a match with the word park, but that’s all God could give us at the time. I tried to bring warmth and lightness to the on-site meetings by offering hot chocolate and cookies in colorful cups to whatever official was available that day.

We organized a strategic neighborhood canvassing effort to garner signatures and contributions toward shrubs and trees. In three weeks, we collected 437 signatures and pledges of $2,200 for water-efficient landscaping for the proposed park.

Months went by and we finally got the approval of the parks and recreation committee. Although they were initially opposed to the idea of a pocket park with a high price per acre, they began to listen after seeing the land and hearing our well-researched arguments.

The winter night the city council voted was surreal. We had experienced many footsteps and heartaches to get to this place. The near-champion Golden High School football team received an award from the council for outstanding athletics and sportsmanship, which was accepted by a physically challenged yet proud and handsome coach in his wheelchair. Having the team’s energy in the council chambers was invigorating, with a flush of small-town spirit. When the decision about purchasing the park was presented on the overhead electronic boards, there was an unprecedented jump and cheer for joy by all the neighbors. It was a unanimous decision, with the mayor stating, “This is a true example of what democracy is all about.”

Last weekend, we planted our trees and shrubs in the park—one of the most memorable days of my life. I was tired after the work, but it was the best kind of tired because our efforts had gone somewhere. We were birthing a place that would be here for many future generations. The city sent over Josh, a twenty-something kid with his head on straight, to work the backhoe. He helped us distribute the trees to their chosen locations and carve planting holes into the world’s hardest material—or so it seemed on that day. At the end of that hot eight-hour period, he told us, “This has been totally cool, planting a neighborhood park I can show to my kids one day.”

Looking Out for the Future

When a local gravel company offered to trade 438 acres of Golden’s North Table Mesa for sixty-three acres of gravel-rich lowland, everyone involved won. The negotiation took three long years to complete, but the rewards are forever—permanent open space on a visually and historically valuable landmark.

We faced another challenge on the neighboring mesa, South Table Mountain, where Nike proposed building a 5,000-employee campus. This parcel of land, with its Castle Rock butte, was pictured on the Coors beer cans and ads for many years. More importantly to us, it’s what Golden residents see from any point in Golden. To many Native Americans, this is sacred land. To me, the Nike proposal would be like building on the Statue of Liberty’s head.

To face this challenge, we formed a citizen group called Save the Mesas to educate the public and even our own city government on the importance of procuring this land as open space. We sent newspaper articles and letters to the editor and to the Nike’s board of directors expressing the importance of the Mesa remaining undeveloped. Nike backed out for numerous reasons, a success still partly in the shadows since it’s unclear what the landowners will ultimately do.

The future of Golden’s open space is being decided as I write. It’s odd to me how these days one must battle for frontier—we no longer battle the frontier because there is so little left. We’ve tamed, groomed, and sculpted her to suit us, like the now-complete manicured golf course we see from Harmony Village living rooms and patios. At least the neighborhood kids who helped mulch the trees in the new park will remember how we created a new public place, and hopefully they’ll feel empowered to preserve land for their kids. One thing is certain: the land can’t preserve itself—it needs our help. May we find the persistence, people skills, and sense of humor that we’ll need!

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