At the end of a narrow lot lined with semi trailers, Bob Eason peers through a chain-link fence separating him from the one and a half acres of land he once owned.
Just off Arapahoe Avenue near 63rd Street and north of a posh housing development in Boulder, the property has some of the most pristine views in the county. Undeveloped land to the west offers unimpeded vistas and an unconcealed look at snowcapped Longs Peak. A protected wetland called Sombrero Marsh is home to hundreds of migratory birds and other animals.
No one--not the City of Boulder, not Boulder County--wanted Eason to use the land for his business, Bargain Storage, which leases out 224-square-foot storage trailers for $79 a month. Eason, who still owns another acre and a half next to Sombrero Marsh, just claimed victory over the county for his right to store the trailers there, but he is battling with the city for the right to be properly paid for the land it took away from him.
Almost three years ago, the City of Boulder eyed the wetland on what was once Eason's three-acre property, decided it needed protection and condemned it. But when the city informed Eason it would be taking half of his land for open-space preservation, they made him an offer he couldn't accept: $34,000. That price, he says, is a steal. "They offered me less than a year's income for that!" he says, explaining that the 46 trailers once parked on what is now city property generated approximately $43,600 annually. Eason still has 150 trailers on the other side of the fence.
"They say they're saving the wetlands, but that's bullcorn," Eason says in a Texas drawl. "It was a veiled disguise to steal my land and drive me out of business."
Although the trailers are gone, the city isn't going to leave the twenty-acre marsh untouched. In December, the open-space department received a $150,000 grant to help construct a 4,000-square-foot educational and lab facility next to the marsh. Delani Wheeler, deputy director of the department, calls the marsh "an extremely unique, natural wetland that existed before there was European settlement in the 1860s. It's host to migratory and year-round birds...and a lot of different species of insects and animals," she says. "It's important to preserve this as an area that can provide education about wetlands to future generations."
Eason isn't disputing the marsh's environmental value; all he wants is a fair price. The appraiser hired by the city assessed the value of the land itself but did not take into account the future revenues Eason would have earned from the property, he says. The appraiser Eason hired valued the land at $323,000.
"When he had these trailers, they produced income for him, but the city did not take his trailers. After the city took the land, he still had the trailers and could still make money on them somewhere else," says Boulder deputy city attorney Jerry Gordon.
Condemnation of private property for public use is not uncommon in Boulder, which is often criticized for its land-acquisition methods. Carol Jirkovsky and Tom Black and their two children once lived atop Davidson Mesa in a dome-shaped house near U.S. Highway 36, across from the scenic overlook. A couple of years ago, the city's open space department forced the family off their land for the "greater good" of the public, whose mountain view was being partially blocked by the house.
When Eason turned down the city's $34,000 offer, the case went before a condemnation commission made up of three court-appointed Boulder-area citizens. In December 1997, the commission offered Eason $181,624 for the land, but Eason is appealing the ruling. He thinks he should be compensated for the income he lost when he had to remove the trailers from the condemned property. The city disagrees. "When a government claims eminent domain, it pays a property owner for the worth of the land, not for personal property, and his trailers are considered personal property," Gordon says. "That's why the spread was so great between what we thought the land was worth and what he thought it was worth."
Eason says the chairman of the commission, Charles Sisk, was biased against him. Sisk, a Louisville city councilman, announced a conflict of interest on the last day of the condemnation proceedings, Eason says. Sisk reportedly disclosed that his wife is a shareholder in The Reserve, a subdivision of expensive homes south of Eason's lot whose residents have complained in the past about having to look at his trailers.
The same parcel of land, which is located just east of the Boulder city limits, was also at the center of a six-year battle with Boulder County. Eason, who has operated a trailer-storage business on North Broadway since 1988, opened the Arapahoe location in 1991.
About a year later, SecurCare Self Storage, which has four facilities in Boulder, sent letters to the county complaining that Eason's business was eating into theirs. Eason believes the complaints prompted what happened next. In the fall of 1993, Eason received a letter from the county informing him that he had thirty days to remove his trailers. The county commissioners claimed that using vehicles for storage was not permitted.
County Commissioner Ron Stewart says the county doesn't enforce zoning regulations until it receives complaints about how someone is using his or her property. "When this happened, there were multiple complaints by neighbors to do something about his property, both from people in a mobile-home park adjacent to his property and others, and those complaints have continued," Stewart says. "The major problem was that he had storage units that were serving as permanent structures without being subject to the health and safety standards that apply to other buildings. Some of the trailers were tilting, and that was raising questions about their safety."
Eason says he started "sweating blood" and looking for land where he could store his trailers. He tried to buy property in Golden, Arvada, Aurora, Lafayette, Louisville and Longmont, but none of the cities would allow him to store trailers. Finally, the small town of Erie welcomed his business; he paid $58,000 for two acres there. If he had to move trailers off his Boulder property anyway, he figured he'd buy even more trailers and expand his business. But in the year that it took Eason to find and purchase additional trailers, Erie hired a new town manager who told Eason that his trailers didn't meet Erie's building code. Eason challenged that decision in court. And when Weld County District Court sided with the town, Eason filed an appeal, which is still pending.
Eason did, however, emerge victorious in the suit that Boulder County brought against him for failing to remove his trailers within the thirty-day time frame. When Boulder County District Court sided with Eason, the Boulder County commissioners appealed that ruling.
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But the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in Eason's favor, saying that the county had created "its own arbitrary standards...and violated [Eason's] due process rights," adding that the case "was abusive, brought in bad faith, substantially groundless, frivolous and vexatious." The county commissioners appealed that decision as well.
Finally, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the appeals court's ruling, and in April it ordered the county to pay Eason almost $100,000 in legal fees. It was a big win for Eason, but the land war continues with the city.
Eason borrows a quote to explain the motive behind the Boulder open-space department's claim that they are taking his property for the sake of the environment: "Evil clothed in good deeds is well-camouflaged."
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