April 28, 2006

Land use controversy heats up - Neighbors versus neighbors in Park County
By Tom Locke, Editor

BAILEY, Colo. — Park County plans to file legal actions against three Park County property owners in the next 45 days for violations of land use regulations, according to Park County attorney Steve Groome.

It’s the latest salvo in an ongoing battle within the county that is pitting some neighbors against others.

On the one hand, some Park County property owners assert that they have their own property rights and the county shouldn’t be telling them how to live their lives. In some cases, their code violations are tied to their businesses, so their livelihoods are on the line.

On the other hand, there are those neighbors who complain that they didn’t move to the mountains to have to live year-after-year facing the same old eyesores: junked vehicles, old building materials, stacks of tires, and every type of trash imaginable. And it’s not just a matter of aesthetics. Some residents are complaining that their junky neighbors are lowering their property values and hurting their pocketbooks.

“ It’s impacted the value of my home,” said Laurie Morrison, a resident of the Burland subdivision in Bailey. She moved into her house in 1988, and in 1997 a new neighbor started operating a salvage yard/auto body business across the street, she said.

“ I think in terms of how much I’m owed, it’s not just the value of my home. It’s the violation of the lifestyle. This is about noise, environmental pollution, and the lack of beauty – the selfishness. It’s stolen my happiness,” she said.

Morrison can close all her doors and windows, she said, and still hear the operator’s truck across the street.

Morrison sent her first official letter to the county in 1998, after first having complained to the Burland Homeowners Association.

“ My house documents say R-1 (residential); that’s a legal contract,” she said. And the property across the street is zoned the same way but is not complying, she added.

Morrison is not alone. County letters to code violators in the last two months indicate numerous problems with “salvage yard” or “vehicle storage yard” code violations in residential areas.

Little money spent

For years, Park County has struggled with balancing the various viewpoints on land use issues with another very critical part of the equation: its own resources.

Out of a total county budget of $26 million this year, $62,307 is allocated for junk cleanup and code enforcement of the county’s land use regulations, or LURs. (For more budget details, see story, page 15). That’s only 0.2 percent of the total budget.

And Tom Eisenman, who holds the job as the county’s chief land-use code enforcement official, gets only 5.5 percent of his salary for code enforcement duties. That translates to about 14 work days a year. (For story on the enforcement process and definitional issues, see story this page.)

“ If we had more funds, certainly we could do a lot more,” said County Attorney Groome. “I don’t think there’s any secret that we haven’t had the funds to have a full-time enforcement officer that larger cities and towns have.”

But the issue seems to be gaining momentum.

The Burland Homeowners Association, which includes about 900 homes, hired a lawyer last year who is pushing the issue of enforcement by the county of its own land use regulations. And the lawyer has gotten the county to pay attention, said Cameron Wright, president of the association.

Some junked cars have been sitting for years at private residences in Burland, he said, and that causes the association concern about the possibility of fluids leaking and getting into the groundwater.

The association tries to enforce its own covenants, citing language that forbids any business or activity of a “noxious nature.”  If it can’t get compliance, it turns to the county for help. But the county has been “slow in responding,” said Wright.

That’s partly because of the county’s lack of resources, he said, but that’s not all. “ I think there’s always been a wide-open, country feel about properties around here,” he said.

He declined to speak about any particular Burland homeowner or participate in providing pictures.

City folk expect more

But speaking generally, he said that code enforcement issues seem to be getting hotter in Park County as more people move from the city.

“ I think the trends are turning,” he said. “I think that you’re getting a different mindset of people up here now, because the city is moving this way.”

Park County Commissioner Leni Walker agrees. “I think as the county grows, it’s going to be more of an issue,” she said. “I think as more people move into rural Colorado, it will become more of an issue, because they’ll have expectations.”

Still, there’s the issue of how much enforcement is too much. “Most people in Park County believe less government intervention is better,” Walker said.

County Commissioner John Tighe also cited the Park County mindset. “I would say our constituents would favor less government intrusion in their lives rather than more government intrusion.”

In addition, he and Walker both stressed that the county goal is voluntary compliance and that they don’t want the county involved in neighborhood disputes. It’s not uncommon, according to Eisenman, for one neighbor to use code enforcement as a tool to retaliate against another in a dispute totally unrelated to land use.

Still, Walker and Tighe agree that enforcement of valid complaints is needed. Indeed, Walker said she thinks the county has been stepping up its LUR enforcement. Voluntary compliance is preferred, she added, but “we realize when that doesn’t work, we have to take them through the court process. And we’re willing to do that.”

In fact, not only is the county planning on filing three new cases, but it wants to resurrect an old case against Hartsel-area resident Tim Ricard. Ricard has prompted numerous complaints from Badger Creek Ranch residents in the southwestern corner of the county.

Walker said she anticipates a legal filing against Ricard “sooner rather than later.”

The other three filings are planned against Neal Land, who owns property in Eagles Nest Ranches in the Hartsel area; Stan Zimmerman, who owns property in the Burland subdivision in Bailey; and Mike and Laura Wooten, who own property in Elk Horn Acres subdivision in Bailey.

Land’s file includes a Nov. 30, 2005, letter from Eisenman saying it appeared he was operating his property as a “salvage yard, vehicle storage yard, recycling center and/or junkyard” on a property zoned R-20, Residential Estate.

In January 2005, Land had sent a letter to Eisenman saying he was looking forward to complying with county cleanup wishes, but he needed a time extension.

In August 2005, Mark Crescentini of Hartsel sent a letter to the county saying the Land property had “school buses, 10-20 junk cars, 3-10 tractor trailer trucks and a lot of old construction equipment... . This horrid site has been like this for 3 years.”

Land told The Flume that he wants to clean up the site. “I understand what the county’s saying and, yes, I agree, and it’s something I’ve been intending,” he said.

Land noted that he was an adopted child, and he and his second wife raised 21 children. “A lot of vehicles were vehicles that the kids would wreck,” he said.

Among the impediments to a cleanup, Land cites health problems and high medical bills for him and a lady friend.

He also said much of the stuff on the property is not his; he believes that the items in question are on acreage that’s zoned agriculture rather than residential, and he thinks the county would lose if it took him to court. Nevertheless, he said, “I’m not even arguing. This is something I’ve been wanting to address for a long time anyway.”

Zimmerman, in Burland, also expresses willingness to comply. “I’ve been trying so hard to get back in compliance, and I haven’t had much help from Park County,” said Zimmerman.

He says many of his phone calls have gone unreturned and he has received insufficient guidance about how many cars need to be removed.

“ I’m an autoholic,” Zimmerman said. He collected cars, buying and rebuilding wrecked ones, but he’s reformed to the point where he hasn’t bought a car in two years.

“ I just want to live and let live,” he said. “I’ll be the first to admit that my hobby got out of control. But I’ve made some tremendous progress.”

He got rid of eight cars last year and three this year; his goal is a reduction to eight cars, from 15 he’s got now.

With respect to Wooten, the third property owner, nearby resident Eliot Mansk filed a complaint in August 2005 saying that the Wooten’s commercial trucking business, Bear Enterprises Inc., “emits odor, dust, smoke, fumes, vibration and noise throughout our community.”

Not only did that violate county land use regulations, but also the protective covenants of Elk Horn Acres. “Section 5 of our covenants provides as follows: ‘No commercial operations of any sort shall be conducted within the Subdivision, or shall anything be done thereon which may be or become an annoyance or nuisance to the neighborhood.”

A county site inspection in July 2005 recorded “multiple trucks, backhoe, lowboy’s bull dozer belly dumpers” on the property.

In December 2005, Eisenman sent a letter to Wooten saying his property was zoned residential and couldn’t be used as a vehicle storage yard. It was being used “to store multiple commercial vehicles and equipment” for a commercial business, he wrote.

A letter of response from Laura Wooten argued that others did the same and weren’t being targeted. Plus, before moving to Park County the Wootens “asked permission to have our business here and if we could park our trucks here. ... We were told that as long as we parked our trucks on our own property and did not park the trucks on County roads, that there would be no problems. ... Park County KNEW what our business was. We were VERY CLEAR on it with them from the beginning. ... Well, if it is a violation for us, it is a violation for all who are doing the same thing. And it is a big problem here in Park County.”

Mike Wooten told The Flume the same thing. “They told us specifically that you can run three businesses out of your home.”

He said they moved from Jefferson County to Park County “to be able to park out in front of the home and run the business out of our home.”

The Wooten trucking business, which hauls gravel and rocks, operates two trucks with 34-foot end-dump trailers that leave their property in the morning and come back after work, he said. “I don’t see how it could have hurt their property values,” he added.

Morrison might have a difference of opinion on that. She thinks the trucking noise across from her home in Burland has hurt her property values – and her quality of life.

“ I can’t come home for peace and quiet,” she said.

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