Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post file

A sweeping city drainage project at City Park Golf Course that will remake the landscape and bulldoze roughly 260 trees has survived a legal challenge that put the controversial plan on trial.

Denver District Court Judge David H. Goldberg on Thursday issued a decision in favor of city parks officials, including parks director Allegra “Happy” Haynes. He rejected the arguments of a group of activists who have claimed that installing a huge stormwater detention area on designated parkland violated the city charter.

Goldberg ruled that city officials were within their right to use the golf course for the drainage project. He didn’t wade into the debate over connections between the project and the state’s controversial Interstate 70 expansion project through northeast Denver.

“Though the reconfiguration of CPGC may be a thinly veiled subterfuge to pave the way for new construction plans on I-70 and along the I-70 corridor, consideration of the various rationales and funding mechanisms for the project is beyond the scope of this court’s charge due to the applicable standard of review,” Goldberg wrote early in the 24-page decision.

The judge presided over a four-day bench trial in August, then mulled over his decision for two months.

The Denver residents who challenged the plan could still appeal his ruling. But for now, with trees already marked for removal — some opponents called their impending cutting an “aboreal holocaust” in recent weeks — ground work at City Park Golf Course is expected to start Nov. 1.

Aaron Goldhamer, the plaintiffs’ attorney, issued a statement Thursday afternoon: “While Judge Goldberg found that — in fact — the proposed project will result in a ‘materially detrimental’ effect on the natural habitat and neighborhood due to the loss of mature trees, and that the large-scale regrading of the course may result ‘in detrimental changes to the health of the soil and remaining trees,’ he found that the existing law compelled his deference to the decision of Denver’s Department of Parks and Recreation to proceed with the project.

“The Judge also acknowledged the ‘significant detriment’ to Denver residents should the course lose its historic designations, which he acknowledged is a real possibility. Judge Goldberg noted he was ‘loath’ to see the course close, but that his hands were tied under existing law to defer to our elected officials and their appointees. To ensure that Denver’s parks are protected in the future, we may need new laws or new elected officials.”

Comment from city officials was not immediately available.

The lawsuit, filed last year by former Colorado Attorney General J.D. MacFarlane and later joined by seven other Denver residents, targeted one of four main components of Denver Public Works’ Platte to Park Hill drainage plan to improve stormwater drainage in parts of east and northeast Denver.

Carrying an estimated price tag of $267 million to $298 million, the projects include large detention areas, new pipes, a drainage channel along 39th Avenue and a new outfall on the South Platte River at Globeville Landing Park.

For City Park Golf Course, the city has awarded a $44.9 million design and construction contract to a team that is redesigning the entire course to incorporate a stormwater detention area into the landscape of the western third.

During and after heavy rainfall — up to a 100-year storm — the course would take on water for up to eight hours to slow the runoff’s flow toward the river.

A conceptual design of the City Park Golf Course makeover. Contracts for the project were approved by the Denver City Council on Aug. 14, 2017.

The plan requires the removal of about one-third of the course’s trees, to be replaced by new ones on-course and elsewhere that would take decades to mature.

And the golf course is set to close entirely for up to two years.

As the trial unfolded Aug. 21-24, the plaintiffs and their attorneys argued that such a large and invasive project would violate the Denver city charter’s rule that designated parks can’t be used for non-park purposes. They also cited zoning rules.

But city attorneys laid out a defense of the project, arguing that it was allowed because it wasn’t changing the core function of the land as a golf course. Reneé Carmody, a senior assistant city attorney, said early on that the detention area would “seamlessly integrate drainage into the park.”

This story is developing and will be updated.

Here is Thursday’s court ruling:

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