This week's feature, "Battlefield Suburbia," explores the bizarre and tumultuous battles of metro Denver residents against their Homeowner's Associations and the companies that manage them. A proposal making it's way through the state legislature could address some of the disputes that often result in expensive legal bouts and, in the case of two local neighborhoods, warranted several visits from police. For another HOA story, however, read below:
The Foothills Park and Recreation District has its hands full with more than 28 square miles of unincorporated Jefferson County west of Denver. The district boasts maintenance of forty-one developed park sites, thirteen miles of trails and two public golf course facilities, to name just a few.
The district, formed in 1959, serves about 90,000 residents on a $22 million budget to supply and maintain the suburban amenities, which most agree are pretty slick.
But Andrew Burt, president of the Mesa View Estates HOA, says residents in his neighborhood are being ripped off.
That's because his upper-middle class enclave -- with about 1,500 residents -- lies beyond the general boundaries of the district, and the people who live there rarely make the ten- to fifteen-mile journey to use Foothills' amenities. But Mesa View residents still have to pay the same percentage of property taxes as neighbors within the primary hub.
"What we found was that for the last three years of usage, there were only 94 transactions from our area [at the pools, golf courses, etc.]," he says. "That's just microscopic. We just don't use it." He calculates that of the $110,000 his neighborhood pays to the district each year, only $25,000 actually benefits Mesa View. "75 percent of our taxes are going down south, and we want out."
The disparity, and the obvious separation of the neighborhood from the rest of the district, sparked conversations a few years ago about Mesa View becoming a special sub-district with more monetary focus on the immediate area. Those conversations, though, soon turned into heated meetings with district representatives, especially once complaints about the poor condition of the neighborhood park came rolling in.
"They have a desire to have a higher level of maintenance," says Ron Hopp, executive director of the Foothills Park and Recreation District, but "we maintain their park the same as every other park in the district."
"They obviously believe that they are quote-unquote 'too far away from the rest of the district,'" Hopp maintains. "The issues were just impossible to resolve." Foothills Park and Rec created a custom web page chronicling the back and forth between homeowners and the district. (Click here to check it out).
Despite the outcry from the HOA and neighbors who thought their parks weren't getting the right amount of care, the district opposed letting Mesa View off the hook because, as Burt says, "we're a revenue center for them."
"This is our question for them: Why do you want us? We don't fit," Burt says of his neighborhood, which was severed from the bulk of the district in 1999 when the City of Lakewood left the district and a huge gap between the facilities and Mesa View in its absence. "I think what they do is fabulous, but it's down there. We're really trying to get our local dollars spent locally."
So Burt and neighbor Keith Sutton did what any Colorado homeowner who wants something done should do: In the spring of 2009, they each ran for one of the five district board seats with hopes of influencing the board to let the neighborhood loose.
Any other time, it's difficult to even get residents to run for the posts -- the positions are boring, time consuming and virtually invisible to most residents -- but a proposed mill levy increase on homeowners to bolster the financially struggling district was a neighborhood hot topic at the time.
Burt ultimately lost, though Sutton, who is also a board member on the HOA, gained a seat on the board; with Mesa View resident Walt Frankland already on the district board, that meant two-fifths of the board were from Mesa View, which put Burt and his entourage in a good spot to negotiate their release.
So in the summer of 2009, the HOA made its official bid for independence from the district, or "a secession" (district officials say the proper term is "exclusion"), offering to buy the neighborhood park and other property in the area for $400,000. The HOA would then fund the maintenance of the common areas, Burt says, with reserves and the money saved from not paying the district.
However, as the negotiations between the HOA and the district went on -- Hopp declined the sale of the common park facilities on behalf of the district -- the Foothills Park and Rec District did something strange: In late September, the board voted 3-2 in favor of completely re-drawing the district. The two dissenting votes were Frankland and Sutton, the only two from the Sixth Avenue Area or Mesa View Estates.
The move split the district into five voting wards, as opposed to the previous at-large voting system, leaving Mesa View all but a blip on the segmented voter district Ward 1 -- a measure that effectively keeps Mesa View and the surrounding neighborhoods from keeping their current two seats, as Frankland is termed out in May.
Hopp, who came in as director in the middle of the disagreements in 2008, says the district acted within its power to split up the district to ensure "fair and equal representation throughout the district." He also says it keeps the interests of "a vocal minority" from taking over the board, giving them "the ability to do irreparable harm to the district."
The Mesa View HOA says taking a red pen to the district map was a direct violation of their voting rights (the board never brought the redistricting plan before voters of the district, or even held a public hearing). Hopp denies the allegation that the move violated voters' rights and goes further to say the redistricting was not a political move to keep Mesa View from pushing the exclusion issue.
However, Frankland, who has served on the district board since 2002, says the redistricting was absolutely a move to keep Mesa View from pushing the exclusion issue. "The biggest reason I voted against it is I believe it had a specific aim at the Sixth Avenue Area. I think it was brought up because the Sixth Avenue Area has been complaining about how their money is being spent."
But he's being pulled in two directions, he says, as a Mesa View homeowner and a member of the district board. "I don't like the idea of wards especially because it hurts the Sixth Avenue Area," explains the board member, whose post will be awarded to a new ward this May. "I think it's totally unfair to have the Sixth Avenue area have two board members now and have one taken away."
Board members voted in from the other four wards won't understand Mesa View's desire to leave, and will therefore never favor letting them go, Frankland asserts, not to mention the chunk of money the district would lose from the outlier neighborhood.
Moreover, he says Hopp, who reports to the board, is incorrect in his assertion that it's a small number of folks who want to part ways with the district. "I think it's a large majority," Frankland says, noting that he agrees that Mesa View should be able to ditch the district. "In my personal opinion, I do believe Mesa View should not be part of the district. I have thought that ever since I became a board member."
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Burt and members of the HOA filed suit against the district in Jefferson County Court early this year to stop the elections coming up in May, which will leave them with one less sympathetic vote. But the judge ruled to go ahead with the election February 23.
Burt says the ruling was a disappointing first step in the process and that the HOA plans to take further court action -- a civil suit and trial -- against Foothills Park and Rec for alleged violations of the resident's voting rights when they redrew the district without voter approval.
"We're obviously disappointed the judge didn't see the irreparable harm that we did -- that voters rights will be taken away in this election, since those voters can never again vote in the 2010 election," Burt said.
He's confident the HOA will win in court. "They did it specifically because they wanted to lock us out. They can't just do it on a 3 to 2 vote of the Board of Directors. It's illegal."