Turning Water Into Whine

When Gary Antonoff set up his own private government, the town of Lochbuie got soaked.

Although Lembke says, "I had a number of people wondering about my sanity," he figured the failed development, which was being unloaded by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, had potential. "DIA was under way--it was going to happen," he explains. "I-76 was being built, and Bromley Park had three interchanges along it. And I thought that if you had a piece of property on an interstate, across the road from Barr Lake, fifteen minutes from DIA--well, it seemed like it might work."

Also figuring prominently in his calculations was the fire-sale price on the property: Lembke paid less than $3 million for the failed development. Lembke and his new partners (much to the annoyance of some Brighton-area officials, they have included former members of the Brighton Company, including Deutsch and Heimlich) now control 2,600 acres of prime, ready-for-development real estate--a tract of land three times the size of the Denver Tech Center. When he is done, Lembke says, the development will boast 12,000 business, industrial and residential units.

Not long ago, Lembke says, he and his partners sat down to calculate the worth of Bromley Park. Lembke declines to release the number they came up with. "It's so big that it's scary," he admits.

Yet that number won't be reached unless and until Lembke solves his project's water woes. In a long and complex series of legal disputes scheduled to culminate in a trial in Adams County later this year, Lembke, Antonoff and the city of Brighton have been squabbling over who will provide water to the massive development.

Antonoff maintains that the contracts he holds (a 1990 contract between Beebe Draw, Bromley Park and Brighton also gives the district standing to sell water to Bromley Park) are still valid and that he should be the one pumping water to the massive development. Lembke, who has another contract to buy water from the city of Brighton, wants no part of Antonoff's district.

For starters, Lembke says, Beebe Draw, which lacks both a treatment plant and sufficient storage capacity, doesn't have the ability to serve such a huge development. Antonoff disagrees: "I am ready, willing and able to deliver them water," he says, although he acknowledges that he will first have to build a new treatment plant.

More important, though, is that Gary Antonoff is not someone Lembke wants associated with Bromley Park. "When you provide homes and businesses for people, you want to make sure they get served," Lembke explains. "And there's a certain public-service attitude that's needed for the good of the community. I wouldn't have minded writing Gary checks for water. But the only way to judge future actions is by past performance."

Which, in the case of Antonoff's dealings with Lochbuie, was a clear example of elevating private gain over the public good, Lembke says. "There was a certain mindset Gary had--it's my right pocket or my left pocket, so what's the difference?" he notes. "Well, the government is not supposed to be a pocket. It's not even supposed to be the same pair of pants."

Yet, as was the case with Lochbuie, Antonoff is pursuing Bromley Park relentlessly. The reason is plain: Should Beebe Draw win, Lembke estimates that Antonoff stands to earn as much as $20 million from the deal--the difference between the cost of pumping his water out of the ground and its sale price to Bromley Park's 12,000 new businesses and residents.

Antonoff could also profit off of Bromley Park by agreeing to sell his water rights to Lembke in exchange for dropping out of the Bromley Park water lottery. Although there remains great dispute over the value of Beebe Draw's water--both Cruz and Law say a major reason their agencies agreed to lend money so that Lochbuie could build its own system was that, in their opinion, Antonoff's water wasn't worth much--Antonoff continues to believe his wells are gold-plated.

"We have a wonderful supply of water," Antonoff asserts. "And if it was worth $10 million in 1985, what do you figure it's worth now?" By Antonoff's estimates, the answer is about $26 million.

In 1996 the dispute over Bromley Park's water supply spilled over into the state legislature, where an innocuous-sounding clause found its way into HB 96-1023. On the surface, the bill addressed regional transportation. But the buried provision, written largely by Lembke, required that if one special district wanted to provide service inside another district, it had to first get the permission of the second district's residents. While written in convoluted legalese, the measure was clearly aimed at allowing Bromley Park to separate itself from Antonoff--a fact not lost on the governor.

"A complex provision was added to a non-controversial bill, without full and open debate," Roy Romer wrote in a scolding letter to members of the House that April. "Some have argued that this bill was drafted to give one side the advantage in an ongoing legal dispute between specific parties. I do not believe that this legislation, or any other legislation, should be passed to give either side an advantage in existing legal proceedings."

Although Romer refused to sign the bill, it passed into law without his signature.

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