By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
A few days after the meeting, a co-worker told Hargett about www.stoplostandfound.com.
"A bunch of us developed that website to share with each other all of this information," Mary Semcken explains. "It's critically important to us that we communicate the facts, the documents, the rulings. It's a way for all of the concerned residents to stay up to speed."
Hargett objected to some of the material on the site, particularly the descriptions of the types of children housed at Lost and Found, and he asked the Semckens to remove it. When they refused, he sued them for slander. "Defendant's specific intent in these publications on his web site it to promote hysteria in the community of Upper Bear Creek," the complaint reads. "Convincing the neighborhood that plaintiff will bring crime, 'fire, death, blood or gore' to the Upper Bear Creek community."
But the Semckens stand by their site. "Google 'attachment disorder' and watch how many times 'blood' and 'gore' come up," says Kevin Semcken.
"When we were served with the papers, we took them to several attorney groups," Mary Semcken continues. Those lawyers told her that the suit was what's known as a SLAPP suit, a tool to silence critics, and "a smokescreen for the real issue," she says, "which is the easement."
Legal access to Singing River Ranch is through a private easement, and that easement is owned by the Semckens. When Clear Creek County granted the easement to the property in 1923, it was for "ingress and egress for farm/ranching activities and for residential use." Although Lost and Found's use isn't a match, neither was West's campground, nor the campground that was there for thirty years before that. But the easement wasn't the only problem. The property is also zoned Mountain Residential-1 usage, which technically means that only one residence is allowed. The Singing River Ranch camp predated the county's zoning regulations.
"It's my understanding that the camp has been there since before the adoption of our county zoning regulations in 1964," explains Fred Rollenhagen, planning director for Clear Creek County. "We would have called it legal non-conforming use; it was allowed to just continue as it always has."
For Lost and Found to operate there, though, it would have to get the property rezoned. "We had no idea that the zoning issue was going to get so complicated," Hargett says. "We knew that the property had been used for a Christian camp and that it had a legal non-conforming on it already. Our assumption was that would give us operating power to go right to work, and then we would go to zoning and get it zoned to speed. Obviously, that was not the case."
In November, the Clear Creek County Board of Commissioners voted not to extend the legal non-conforming use of the property, which meant that any future uses proposed for Singing River Ranch would have to conform to mountain residential regulations. Lost and Found immediately appealed the decision.
That appeal is still pending, but the litigation continues to fly. Last September, attorneys for a handful of Clear Creek County residents, including the Semckens, filed a complaint against Lost and Found, citing misuse of the easement, the zoning dispute and Lost and Found's disregard for county zoning requirements. While that case is still pending, a hearing on the slander suit is scheduled for this month.
"What these people are trying to do is to make us out to be the bad guys by saying we are against the kids, we are against religion," explains Kevin Semcken. "What we are against is putting anything in place that is not allowed to be there. The location right there is not right for Lost and Found's purposes. It's a dead-end; it's an area where there are mountain lions; it's a fire hazard; they would pollute Upper Bear Creek. There are so many issues going on, and the county just couldn't support them back there; we couldn't support the police protection, we couldn't support the ambulatory care. Should the residents be concerned about the kids? The answer is no. You shouldn't be concerned about the kids if the proper infrastructure is in place to take care of them, to keep them from lighting fires, to keep them from running away. But it's not."
But a different kind of concern about the kids runs through the stack of court documents devoted to this case.
"I did not build my house here in the middle of this quiet, beautiful land so that someone could move in troubled kids and families. I am afraid," reads one letter from a neighbor.
"The entire population of 'troubled youths' could be at my home via a very short hike," begins another. "Do I now need to put bars on my doors and windows? Do I need to have a loaded handguns in my home to protect my life and property? These junior criminals could burn down our forest (and possibly our homes) in a heartbeat. A blackened forest would demolish the value of our homes. Do my neighbors (who are even closer to the proposed facility) with small children need to worry about sexual predators lurking a short distance away?"