Back in 1946, when Duncan Clark built his Trailer Haven Mobile Home Park, East Colfax Avenue could be a pretty lonely place. Fitzsimons Army Hospital, which sat practically across the street, was one of his only neighbors. Even Aurora didn't make it past Peoria Street until 1955, when the city annexed the area containing both the trailer park and Fitzsimons.
At the time, Clark was eager to become part of Aurora; he wanted access to such city ser-vices as police and sewers. But today it seems as if Aurora no longer wants him.
In 1995, just as the Army was closing Fitzsimons, Aurora took a look at its ordinance governing trailer parks. It sent thirteen mobile-home parks a copy of a proposed ordinance change, asking for their comments. The proposal called for maintaining minimum distances between trailer homes, in accordance with standards set forth by the National Fire Protection Association: ten feet between the sides of any two units, eight feet between the side and the end of adjoining units, and at least six feet between the ends of any two units.
Only Trailer Haven objected to the proposal. To comply with the new rules, it would have to remove 59 of its 210 mobile homes, 185 of which were owned by the park and leased to tenants. "It is obvious to me," manager Sara Ballard told city officials, "that none of you live in a mobile-home park, nor do you understand the complexities of the proposed changes. Our homes are 100 percent occupied. Where will our tenants go while we move these units? We're talking water, gas, electricity and sewer."
Despite Trailer Haven's objections, Aurora approved the proposal and gave trailer parks ten years to come into compliance with the ordinance. Of the 21 trailer parks in Aurora, only Trailer Haven has yet to do so.
Instead, Clark (who declined to speak with Westword) and his attorney, Darrel Campbell, tried to persuade the city to accept an alternative spacing setup. They argued that even the NFPA waived the distance requirements, provided the structures in question were built or retrofitted with adequate fireproof materials. But the city rejected Trailer Haven's proposal.
So in May 1998, Trailer Haven sued the city, arguing that the revised ordinance technically allowed mobile homes built before 1997 to be grandfathered in, as long as they did not pose a health or safety hazard. If Trailer Haven could prove that its units were safe, Campbell said, the park should be allowed to stay as it was.
Rather than let the matter go to trial, Aurora City Council simply revised the ordinance again this past February, eliminating the grandfather clause altogether. The only exceptions the city now allows are for "unique, unnecessary and unreasonable hardships" -- but financial difficulties alone aren't enough.
Campbell filed an amended complaint protesting the elimination of the exemption early this month; the city has yet to respond.
"In our view, they're applying the ordinance retroactively, and we don't think it's appropriate," he says. "They have a plan for the area, and it's clear that it doesn't include us."
Fitzsimons is now being converted into a state-of-the-art medical campus for the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Already, 1,500 employees are working at the new Anschutz Centers for Advanced Medicine, which includes cancer and outpatient pavilions; within five years, as UCHSC moves its operations from cramped quarters just east of Colorado Boulevard to Fitzsimons, 5,000 more employees will arrive. "We expect that all of those people who will need to eat lunch or run their errands will create demand for new businesses," says Tim Murphy of the Aurora Small Business Development Center.
And by the time the first phases of the project are built out in 2010, 18,000 people are expected to be working at the new campus in academic, research or retail jobs. The city and UCHSC hope to attract new retail and multi-family housing developments in the immediate neighborhood. The $1.3 billion project promises to be a real jewel for Aurora -- unlike the nearby trailer parks and cheap motels that have turned this stretch of Colfax into a tawdry, low-rent district.
"It's the Fitzsimons boundary situation," Clark explained in court. "They want us out, obviously."
But Robert Werking, assistant city attorney for Aurora, points out that the mobile-home ordinance changes were proposed before UCHSC even looked at Fitzsimons. And those changes are minor compared to a new proposal that would create an urban-renewal district in Aurora, clearing out most of the businesses bordering Fitzsimons in order to make way for new development.
Before the city can adopt such a plan, however, it must prove that the target area is blighted under state law. To do so, Aurora would have to show that the area contains four out of eleven possible blight factors, including deteriorated structures, unsanitary conditions, environmental contamination and faulty lot layouts. According to Mark Franzen, project manager for the Office of Development Assistance, the area meets ten blight factors. Once Aurora officially determines that it's blighted, he adds, the city will identify the urban-renewal boundaries and establish a tax-increment financing district in which sales and property-tax levels are frozen to help spur development. Franzen anticipates that public hearings on the proposal will begin in June.
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Campbell and Clark are already talking about the proposal; not surprisingly, they don't like it. Even if some properties within the target area don't meet blight conditions -- Trailer Heaven certainly doesn't qualify as blighted, Campbell says -- the city can still condemn everything in the area, provided that it purchases the properties for a fair market value and helps relocate displaced residents.
Developers are already contacting the city about the land around the UCHSC campus. "There's quite a bit of interest out there," Franzen says. "How much will come to fruition -- who knows?"
In the meantime, Murphy points out, the land is gaining in value. "People who own the property have typically already made money on the investment," he says. "Anything else they get from here is sort of icing on the cake."
But Clark not only has his cake, he'd like to keep it, too. Campbell says he's not aware of his client entertaining offers to sell; Clark just wants to continue operating his successful trailer park. But they both recognize that there could be bumps in the road ahead. "If it becomes the crown jewel of Aurora," Campbell says of the area, "then obviously, property value will go up and there will be better uses for the property."