On May 20, Arapahoe County Commissioner Bill Holen held a town hall event for residents. Shannon Carter, the county’s Intergovernmental Relations and Open Spaces Director, provided information on the Open Spaces program. Luc Hatlestad, public information officer, moderated the discussion.
Holen told listeners that Tri-County Health Department (TCH), to whom the State of Colorado handed off jurisdiction for rules concerning the spread of COVID-19 in Arapahoe and Adams County (Douglas County commissioners voted to “opt out” of TCH’s public health order) declared that Arapahoe County went to Level Clear on May 16 and would stay there until August 16, resulting in virtually no restrictions for businesses or their patrons. After August 16, TCH will re-evaluate based on COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations, both of which are presently going down. Holen said that 60 percent of Arapahoe County residents have already received at least their first vaccinations.
Veteran’s services and other assistance
“Arapahoe County will face many challenges in 2021 due to the fiscal impact of the COVID-19 virus,” said Holen. He continued, “At this time, the county is practicing fiscal restraint and seeking cost savings and efficiencies, carefully evaluating county operations as it develops a new strategic plan.”
Despite those challenges, Commissioner Holen was instrumental in getting a new veteran’s service office opened in Aurora in the Altura Plaza building at 15400 E. 14th Place, in addition to the one already operating at 1690 W. Littleton Blvd in Littleton. Holen shared that there are almost 80,000 veterans living in Arapahoe and Adams Counties. He said, “This office in north Aurora has a full-time veterans service officer who helps people with disabilities (Holen is a disabled Vietnam War veteran), including claiming the disabled veterans’ property tax exemption and assisting veterans with their education benefits.” He continued, “Last year, this office brought $6 million in benefits to veterans,” adding, “This office is a partnership with Adams County and the City of Aurora to have a close-by office that is on the bus line to help veterans in the area,” especially important because of the large concentration of veterans in the City of Aurora. The office is open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 8:00 a.m. to Noon on Fridays. The other office is located at 1690 W. Littleton Blvd, Suite 110. Information on available services and appointments can be obtained by calling 303-738-8045.
Holen also shared that the county expects to receive $126 million from the American Rescue Plan, which will be used to maintain essential services. It has already received and disbursed $114.5 million from the CARES Act, much of which went to small businesses throughout the county. Arapahoe County is also still providing help with rental and housing assistance, food, and other relief for its disadvantaged residents. It continues to make available job fairs, skills classes, and targeted programs for veterans and seniors, all delivered virtually on webinars. Information about these and other programs can be found on the county website arapahoegov.com.
County Fair returns for 2021
Celebrating a return to normalcy, Holen announced that the 115th annual Arapahoe County Fair is back on this year after being canceled in 2020. It will be held on July 22-25 at the fairgrounds at 25690 E. Quincy Avenue in Aurora and showcase the county’s agricultural heritage. This year’s theme is, “Getting Back in the Saddle.” There will be multiple rodeos, including a Mexican rodeo on Sunday that will include singing and dancing to highlight the Mexican culture, a modified tractor- pull, carnivals, fireworks, and lots of musical entertainment, along with all of the traditional 4H Club activities, including a youth livestock auction on Saturday, all for $15. Tickets can be purchased online at arapahoecountyfair.com. That website also includes the full schedule of events.
Other upcoming events, which are also listed on the county fair website, include the 17 Mile House 5K fun run for walkers and runners on June 12, which will be held live at the fairgrounds as well as virtually. 17 Mile House Farm Park is a county-designated heritage area at 8181 S. Parker Road in Centennial that includes a historic house, red barn, silo and milk shed, along with two antique windmills and 30 acres of open space. It also has picnic tables, a parking lot, and restroom, plus a trailhead that connects to the Cherry Creek Regional Trail.
County residents are also invited to the fairgrounds on Wednesday, June 16 and Wednesday, June 30 for Pictures on the Plains, where families can bring picnics, games, blankets, and lawn chairs to enjoy a movie and concert under the stars. Information for these events is also on the county fair website.
Importance of Open Spaces
Carter said that during the past year, Arapahoe County parks, trails, and open spaces have seen a 15 percent increase in use, including the new E-470 trail, as well as the most common ones like the High Line Canal trail.
Open Spaces builds and maintains trails, enhances neighborhood and regional parks, and preserves natural and heritage areas. Since 2003, this 0.25 percent open spaces sales and use tax (25 cents on every $100 spent) has been the reason this department has conserved more than 31,000 acres of open space, built more than 70 miles of new trails, and supported more than 168 park, heritage-area and trailhead projects.
Of the around $30 million in tax collected each year, 50 percent is given back directly to the cities and towns in the county, based on their population. Of the remaining money, 27 percent is used for open space acquisition, and 12 percent is used for competitive grants awarded by the Open Spaces and Trails Advisory Board, a seven member citizens committee from across the county. This year, $16 million is being shared back directly with jurisdictions including Centennial, Littleton, Greenwood Village, Aurora, Cherry Hills Village, Englewood, and Sheridan, along with South Suburban Park & Recreation District for their parks, trails, and open spaces. Only four percent of the tax generated is spent on administration, despite the significant amount of work done by Carter’s department.
That department is currently overseeing the completion of an updated Open Spaces Master Plan. That effort engages the community by providing the opportunity to give input on what should be done in the areas of open space preservation and providing quality spaces and experiences for residents to enjoy. The county spent the past year getting input through written, telephone, and online surveys. They heard “quite clearly that people want to preserve wildlife areas, agricultural properties like ranches and riparian areas.” The master plan shapes the priorities for the coming years. As development happens, Holen said, “The open spaces board makes sure that the programs funded preserve the areas and wildlife habitats that are so important to people.” He also noted that those goals are always considered in the administration of the county’s land use code. Carter made a special note of the importance of having parks and open spaces nearby, compared to mountain areas that can be difficult to access because of traffic.
Carter also shared that the current authorization for the one-quarter-of-one-percent tax is set to expire in 2023 and county commissioners are considering asking the voters to authorize it permanently, instead of having to vote for it every ten years. The tax has been in effect since 2003.
Public Information Officer Luc Hatlestad told listeners about a program called County 101, through which the county provides information to residents about county functions and services, including how it shares tax revenue, how it partners with other branches of government, what it means if you live in an incorporated municipality or the unincorporated part of the county, how to get help finding a job, where to access available benefits, other health and wellness information, and other questions that residents might have. It can be accessed at arapahoegov.com/County101.
Hatlestad asked Holen, “How does the county manage growth? Holen said, “The most significant limiting factor is access to sustainable water resources. Since 80 percent of available water in this state is reserved for agricultural use, we take that into account before approving any new development. There is also a lack of affordable housing because values have increased so much recently.” What matters most? The commissioner was asked. He responded, “We need to be mindful of the importance of preserving the quality of life for our citizens in Arapahoe County.”