Karma Crash

A developer's search for Nirvana has turned Boulder's Fourmile Canyon into a living hell.

Betty Gibbs carefully aims her Isuzu Trooper down a steep dirt road carved out of the side of Fourmile Canyon. It is snowing, and the narrow path has become slippery; with hair-raising dropoffs to the south, drivers must cooperate to negotiate the route safely. But as an oncoming Volkswagen van approaches, its occupants purposefully look away from Gibbs, and she swerves to the right to pass, skidding a little.

"That was Stephanie," Gibbs says nervously. Gibbs moved to Colorado from Virginia on a whim in the mid-1960s; in 1979 she moved up to Fourmile Canyon, a sharp cut into the hills west of Boulder. She still lives there today, working out of her home as a computer consultant for mining companies.

"Stephanie used to be someone I was friendly with," Gibbs continues. "Now somebody probably called her because they saw me driving up to the house. That's what it's become like here. This used to be a place where you could walk up to your neighbor and talk to him. Now it's just full of paranoia and hate, people spying on each other, taking pictures. It's become scary."

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A tour of the isolated neighborhood perched on the canyon's steep hills is like a visit to a dysfunctional frontier village. On the left, the former Wokasch house: Greg and Tonya bailed to Wisconsin a month ago after becoming fed up with the harassment, which peaked when Greg went out to his truck one morning and found a rock had been chucked through the windshield.

To the right, the place where the Matoskys lived until their marriage dissolved over, among other things, the split between Fourmile residents. "It used to be a real neighborhood," says Paul Matosky, who moved out of the canyon last year. "It was a real community. We would get together, have picnics, Christmas parties. Now it's become very strange, very weird. There is a level of paranoia and vitriol and fear that can't be measured. This is hate."

So where is the dreadful catalyst that has divided this once-tight enclave?
On his way to a bike race in Arizona. "You know how some people find God?" asks Howard "Binx" Selby III, 55. "I found meditation. I conceived a daughter and started riding bikes. I always rode a little. But then I became real serious after I got into the Buddhism thing. And you know what? With focus and concentration, I discovered I could ride very fast."

It was also Selby's conversion to Buddhism that got him thinking about the several hundred acres of sloping and wooded land he had owned up Fourmile Canyon for three decades. He'd snapped up the property for a song while still a student at the University of Colorado, developing some of it in the late 1960s and letting the rest sit. A man of big ideas and wide visions, Selby had gone on to make a name and fortune for himself inventing high-tech gizmos. Now his religious transformation has led him to visualize a social invention: a compact, self-contained mountain village of like-minded men and women, living and meditating together.

Neighborhood opposition soon made it clear that Selby was thinking too big. So he scaled back, imagining a meditation center where his friends and those with similar spiritual inclinations could reflect together. After further opposition--much of it by now bitter and personal--Selby put that concept on hold, too. These days he simply hopes to build a home on the site. A huge, 25,000-plus-square-foot home, to be sure. But, he contends, a home nonetheless.

It's been no picnic for his neighbors. An organization devoted to fighting development in the canyon, Residents Against Inappropriate Development (RAID), has sprung up to oppose Selby's plans. It is led by a woman who cut her activist teeth leading fights against big timber companies in the Pacific Northwest. As a result of RAID's efforts, Fourmile residents have been forced into two hostile camps, with little opportunity for neighbors to stay neutral. "I have become more concerned with the things going on in the neighborhood between neighbors than I ever was about anything Binx has proposed," says Karin Swett, who recently quit RAID in protest over the group's tactics.

"It's a squabble that's brought out the worst in people," says Paul Danish, who as a Boulder County commissioner has spent long hours presiding over meetings where disputes over Fourmile run late into the night.

Land-use fights are a common occurrence in Boulder, where the words "environmental impact" are chanted like a mantra whenever someone suggests plunging a shovel into the earth. Yet the clash in Fourmile Canyon has developed into something different, moving far beyond a rational disagreement between reasonable people. Indeed, says Graham Billingsly, director of Boulder County's Department of Land Use, "this is the worst land-use dispute I have seen in twenty years in this office."

Why has the fight over Binx Selby's plans become so brutal? One of the reasons is that Selby's proposals have, through sheer bad timing as much as anything else, become emblematic of the county's efforts to relieve its growing pains.

Four years ago Boulder County became the only county in Colorado to tackle growth with a strict planning tool for new homes. Like a set of government-enforced covenants, this "site plan review" gives county planners the authority to demand that a home builder meet certain guidelines before he builds. Some of them, such as "environmental impact" and "community character," are imprecise, however. Selby's house was the first to go through the new review process and, as has been demonstrated numerous times since, those vague rules leave much room for disagreement. "Everything becomes political because everything is discretionary," fumes Selby.

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