By Joel Warner
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For such a high-stakes game, not many people knew about it. After years of struggle, a cowboy named Glenn Miller and a ragtag assortment of investors lost a potential pot of gold to lawyers bankrolled by the giant Vail ski resort. If it had been a poker game, Glenn Miller would be the one left sitting in his underwear. But now the cowboy and his allies want a re-deal. At stake is the Gilman Tract, 6,000 acres of land wedged in between Vail and Beaver Creek that Miller bought in 1983.
Vail's plans to develop the property, once so contaminated that it was a Superfund site, have caused a furor among environmentalists and Eagle County residents. Residents of Minturn, a picturesque community caught between Vail and the proposed expansion on the Gilman Tract, fear that the ski resort is going to turn their town into a nest of chairlifts and condos. Other opponents, concerned about the impact of Vail's plans on the natural beauty of the area, have packed public hearings on the expansion of what is already North America's largest ski resort.
Behind the public hearings is the story of a classic piece of real estate maneuvering by Vail Associates against a crusty old Coloradan who had no idea of the real value of the property he held for years.
Glenn Miller originally thought he was holding a gold mine of mineral tailings that he could turn into fertilizer. Then government officials stepped in and declared the property so polluted that it became a Superfund site. The final twist was that Miller ended up sitting on a piece of property that a federal judge has described as "some of the most valuable real estate in the state, if not the world." But by then Miller was too broke to do anything about it and lost the land.
Here's how it happened: According to court records, Vail Associates set up an option agreement with a pair of Denver lawyers, Jim Aronstein and Mike Page, who, using Vail's money, purchased rights to portions of the Gilman Tract under the name Turkey Creek Limited Liability Company. Thus, Vail was able to quietly put itself into a position to take hold of the valuable property. Any day now, a deal may be struck in bankruptcy court that will end Miller's hopes and ensure that Vail gets the land.
It's unclear at what point Miller realized that the property was worth more that just its fertilizer potential (Miller has turned down repeated requests for an interview by Westword), but his partners are aware of it. The cowboy plunged into bankruptcy, but his partners screamed for justice, and Miller and his allies went to court, claiming that Vail and its allies dealt from the bottom of the deck. One example of this, they claim, is that Aronstein went to work for Vail after having represented a Miller associate, in the high-stakes game. The courts, however, have said that Aronstein did nothing illegal.
"Mr. Aronstein is guilty of moral turpitude," claims Tom Smith, president of American Consolidated Holdings Corporation, which owns a 30 percent stake in Miller's venture. "But what's more distressing is the fact that the courts are legalizing legal plunder. Aronstein thinks he's in the right to foreclose on his own client. If not for Aronstein's meddling, Miller could have cut his own deal with Vail Associates."
Skip Netzorg, an attorney for Turkey Creek, dismisses Smith's allegations. "These are unfounded, baseless accusations of 'moral turpitude,'" says Netzorg. "These conspiracy allegations that are being made by Miller et al. are ridiculous. At some point, they have to prove what they say. And the trial court found that they couldn't."
At this juncture in the Old West, guns might have been drawn. Smith, a Virginian who claims to have circled the globe as an oil wildcatter and now suffers from diabetes, has to content himself with a verbal barrage. He insists that Miller's defeat was due to a loaded deck. Smith claims that Aronstein and Page have known the value of the property since their dealings with Miller's joint-venture partner back in 1981 and have been maneuvering from the sidelines ever since.
Netzorg counters: "Jim Aronstein lived in the Vail Valley for a long time before any information came out on the property. He's been up there hiking before. This property isn't a secret. The Eagle Mine, one of the most famous in Colorado, is on it. For someone to say that this is a secret deal is silly. There's not one shred of evidence to support it, including a conspiracy of secret information. The court decimated them on this point."
He's right about that. Both the Eagle County District Court and the Colorado Court of Appeals have ruled in favor of Turkey Creek. Miller still hasn't given up.
"This is a winner-take-all dog fight," says Miller's attorney, James Hahn, who has worked on the case on contingency for the past year. "It's the highest-stakes poker game I've ever been involved in. Glenn has invested everything he's got in this project." Referring to Vail's close ties with big-money players on Wall Street, Hahn adds, "It's one individual from the old school fighting against some very big hitters from back East."