Open Spaced

After thirty years, Lakewood residents discover that a "future park site" belongs to someone else.

Rita Bertolli first noticed the work crews in the ravine last April. From the kitchen of her family's home, at the end of a Green Mountain cul-de-sac, she could see them out there, taking measurements and planting little red flags in the high grass.

The hubbub struck Bertolli, a 23-year-old film student at the University of Colorado, as extremely strange. She'd grown up in the house on Oregon Court, and the ravine had always been there -- undeveloped, if not exactly undisturbed. Neighbors had used the area since the subdivision was built in the early 1970s, exercising their dogs along well-worn trails or hiking up the draw and across Alameda Parkway to a trailhead leading into Hayden Park. Deer, foxes and other wildlife came down from the park on a regular basis in search of forage or water. Signs posted around the area by the City of Lakewood declared it a "future park site" and a "dog training area" and banned dumping and motorized vehicles.

Bertolli and her father contacted city officials about the sudden activity on the property and received some unwelcome news. "They said it was private property and there was a plan to build condos there," she recalls.

Despite a widespread belief among Green Mountain residents that the entire ravine was city open space, the upper 3.75 acres of the property has been privately owned for decades. And current plans to build on the site -- there's been talk of up to sixty condo units, or $200,000 patio homes, or a senior facility -- have Bertolli and some of her neighbors hopping mad. They've raised concerns about property values, increased traffic and pollution, and other impacts development might have on what they regard as a key drainage area and wildlife corridor. They also claim that city officials misled residents about the property's ownership and failed to act quickly once its true status became known, when the land could still have been acquired as open space for a fraction of what the present owner is seeking.

"The city made a mistake," Bertolli says. "They had a chance to remedy it, but they came and told us, 'We can't buy it because we don't have any money.' We did all these negotiations with the state and Jefferson County Open Space; we even had people in the neighborhood who were willing to put in some large donations. But it became this political thing, and it just kept going around in circles."

Lakewood City Manager Mike Rock denies that the city misled anyone. The signs bordering the property referred to the lower part of the ravine, which belongs to Lakewood, he says.

"There is a portion that belongs to the city and a portion that is simply undeveloped, and in the minds of many people, they were melded together," Rock says. "But the city never considered [the upper parcel to be] open space. We've collected property taxes on it every year, and it's been zoned for development since the rest of the residential area was zoned."

The parcel has been zoned for multi-family housing, up to twenty units per acre, since 1972. According to city records, the property passed through various owners who took no action -- including some who failed to keep current on tax payments. Last spring, a company called Uncas and its thirty-year-old principal, Justin Spensley, picked it up for $50,000 and an agreement to pay back taxes. He then shopped it around, reportedly at an asking price of as much as $1.5 million, before finally selling the property last November to developer Richard Todd for $350,000.

Bertolli doesn't dispute that Todd is the legal owner of the land. She contends, however, that city staffers have muddied the ownership issue over the years. Her own extensive research of public records has turned up a 1987 map designating the area as open space. Add to that city signs on private land (some since removed), neighbors' recollections of city workers spraying the land for insects in the 1980s, the designation of the entire ravine as an off-leash area for dogs, and other official acts, she says, and it's easy to see why some neighbors feel they've been conned for thirty years.

Gary Kehr, a recent arrival to the neighborhood, says he contacted the city in 2002 before making an offer on his house to confirm that the area behind his new home wasn't zoned for development. "The guy looked it up and told me it was all open space, that the ravine could never be built on," he recalls. "I was shocked to find out that wasn't true."

City Manager Rock says he wouldn't be surprised to find out that the city had sprayed the land at some point to protect its adjoining property. "I can't address what maps drawn in the '80s might have shown, but that certainly wouldn't turn the property into public property," he says.

And Kehr's complaint that he was misinformed? "It's hard to respond to something like that," Rock says. "Every map and zoning document we currently have shows it's private property. I can't understand why anybody at the city would identify this as open space."

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