Douglas County School District’s plan to sell donated land in Highlands Ranch faces questions and concerns. The school district requested that Douglas County turn over the deed to the 10-acre property known as Toepfer Park.
The park consists of mostly open, unfinished space with a few ball fields, and some playground equipment. Area residents have expressed concern that the open space could be sold to a developer to build more homes in the mostly residential area.
Toepfer Park was originally donated to the school district by the Mission Viejo developer in the 1980s. As housing developments are built, it is common for a developer to donate land for future school sites. In Douglas County, when land is donated, the deed to the property is held by the county until the school district makes a decision about what to do with the land.
Paula Hans, public information officer for the Douglas County School District, did not respond to specific questions regarding the issue but provided a prepared statement.
“On Oct. 22, 2019, the District’s Board of Education took action to declare that the Toepfer Park property, as well as three other dedicated school sites throughout Douglas County, were surplus sites, that the sites were not needed within the foreseeable future for any District purpose, and that these properties could be sold and otherwise conveyed in accordance with applicable law and District policy,” noted the statement. “Since that time, the District has furthered efforts to dispose of these four surplus sites. Regarding efforts related to the Toepfer Park property specifically, the District has recently been engaging in discussions with Douglas County and the Highland Ranch Metro District.”
One nearby resident, who wished to remain anonymous, said when he and his wife purchased their home several years ago, he liked that they have a view over Toepfer Park from the deck. He said he would hate for the view to turn into more homes.
Residents have alerted the Douglas County commissioners of their concerns. Following an executive session on March 2, the commissioners discussed the issue, with District III Commissioner Lora Thomas saying the county cannot legally stop it, and should turn over the deeds.
“This land wasn’t really donated, it was part of a development project that the land was set aside for the education of kids,” she said. “It is held in the county’s name for specific reasons. But it is not our land. It is the school’s land. I’m not sure we have any decision making in this. This decision belongs entirely to the school district.”
Information provided from Douglas County states that even if the school district sells the land currently known as Toepfer Park, any prospective developer will need to complete a rezoning process.
According to the Feb. 23 commissioner’s meeting agenda, Director of Community Development Terence Quinn said the property is not currently zoned for a platted development, noting that the Toepfer Park land was designated as open space through the Highlands Ranch Open Space Agreement in 1980.
“The Sweetwater and Toepfer park sites are currently zoned, platted or otherwise limited to public use,” Quinn told the commissioners. “Rezoning or re-platting of these sites for development would require consideration by the board at future public meetings. Conveyance of these sites to (the school district) does not imply board support for such a request. Any potential buyer of these sites should be aware of the existing limitations on the use of the land.”
Quinn said the zoning limits could impact the actual value of the land. According to the memo provided by Quinn, the school district had the land appraised at $2.6 million.
The school district is also asking for the deed to land near Sweetwater Park, which Quinn said has an estimated value between $4.6 million and $5.2 million.
“Douglas County finds the extraordinary assumptions used in the school district appraisal of these sites, and the resulting valuation assumptions, to be unrealistic,” Quinn said.
While Toepfer Park is located near community homes, the Highlands Ranch Metro District also does not have any jurisdiction over what happens with the land.
Metro District General Manager Mike Renshaw said he appreciated that the Douglas County Commissioners invited them to participate in ongoing discussions because it is an issue of concern for area residents.
“The Metro District has not taken a position on it,” Renshaw said. “We appreciate having a seat at the table, but we will take a hands-off approach.”
There is no time line for the Douglas County School District Board or the Douglas County commissioners to make any final decisions.