One Tow Over the Line

Floyd Samuel says there auto be a law against what the city is doing to him.

Samuel "doesn't really do us any big favors," he adds. "Each individual pays his own way."

But while Iacobetta says he doesn't anticipate Denver's SWAT team returning anytime soon, a week later the day squad is back on the paintball field, running through drills.

A few hundred feet from where the Denver cops are training, the Denver Sheriff's Department presides over the city's crowded impound lot. Right now, there are about 1,200 vehicles stored on the twelve-acre site. According to impound lot manager Herbert Peagler, 20 to 30 percent of those are held for evidence in police investigations and can't be moved until the investigation is complete. And until space opens up on the lot, many of the estimated 300 to 500 abandoned cars now on Denver streets will be left there.

Technically, a car considered abandoned should be moved off the street after 72 hours. But "because of our backlog and limited capacity as a holding facility, they stay there," says Captain Chuck Enriquez, the impound commander. "Even though it's a top priority, we have to maintain room for cars hauled in as evidence."

In the first quarter of 1997, the impound was closed to all but emergency tows on nine days. Now the lot is so crowded that during the first quarter of this year, the number of emergency-only days rose to 29.

According to state statute, an abandoned vehicle is one that is left unattended on public property for 24 hours or longer, or one that is left on private property without the property owner's permission. The definition also includes vehicles that are not claimed within 72 hours of being towed to an impound lot.

If the car is not stolen, tow operators (if it's a private tow) or the police (if it's a public tow) are supposed to attempt to locate the owner of the vehicle. If the owner does not claim the vehicle within sixty days, the current holder of the vehicle--whoever is storing it--can apply for a title. Once the title is transferred, the car can be sold.

The city's impound lot auctions off cars twice a month. Last year, Denver made $1 million through such sales; through June of this year, the city's raked in more than $600,000. It could be making more, but the impound lot is just too crowded to allow for more tows--or more sales. The only way they can keep up with demand, impound officials say, is if they get more space. And the only logical way to do that is to get Samuel's land--through condemnation, if necessary.

So far, the city has appraised O'Brien's seven acres, as well as two other nearby properties (one of which it has already acquired). Once the city makes an offer, the landowners can get their own appraisal done and then haggle out a compromise if the two appraisals vary.

If they can't work out a compromise, the city has the option of using condemnation.

"We don't like to condemn people if we can," says Derek Brown, the City of Denver's asset manager. "But the nature of appraisals quite often won't have figures very close."

In order to condemn property, the city must convince a court that taking the land is to the benefit of the community. In this case, the benefit would be removing all those abandoned and junked cars from the streets.

But impound officials say there would be another benefit: cleaning up Samuel's junk.

"Anything we do to it would be an improvement to the neighborhood," Enriquez says. "Look at the trees and bushes out there. Our goal is to clean all that up. We're junk cars, but we're pretty well organized. We don't have cars stacked on top of each other; we don't have car parts falling out."

Leon Braunagel, who runs a salvage yard just past Samuel's tow shop, wouldn't mind seeing the city replace Samuel as a neighbor. "I'd like to see [Samuel] go," he says. "I'd like to get that property cleaned up. It's a pigpen over there. If the city moves in, they'd put up a nice fence, have cops patrolling, clean up the mess over there."

But beauty--or lack thereof--is in the eye of the beholder. Larry Kiesow says he's lived on those seven acres since 1968, and he doesn't know where he'll go if the city takes them over. "What am I supposed to do? Live with Wellington Webb?" he asks. He doesn't understand why Samuel has to go when Denver has other options. For example, he points out, "they got the whole damn airport."

Actually, the city will be making use of the former Stapleton airport--but only temporarily. Last week, the Denver Sheriff's Department set up a temporary impound lot off of Smith Road. But that lot is intended as just a quick fix; it doesn't fit in with either the Stapleton Development Corporation's long-term plans or the city's.

"The city had so many requirements to make the space they need to be up to code," says Karen Saliman of Stapleton Development Corporation, the nonprofit agency in charge of converting the airport to new retail and residential use. "It would be very expensive to get all the permits they need. It looks like in the scheme of things, it's going to be just as fast to acquire land they need as to make modifications."

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