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MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY

The bloodletting is delayed until after a short ceremony honoring members of Wheat Ridge High School's state champion lacrosse team. The people in the audience at the Wheat Ridge City Council chambers listen patiently as the town's young Farmers are honored with a proclamation. Then they get ready to rumble. The opening salvo, the townspeople know from experience, won't come until the council opens a discussion on what to do with West 38th Avenue, the subject of the nastiest street fight in town.

Earlier, residents filed into council chambers with the charged air of fans at a World Wrestling Federation match. They've come to watch--and, to some extent, participate in--a public brawl over whether to expand a one-mile stretch of West 38th Avenue to three lanes and 36 feet or four lanes and 44 feet. The majority of them are swathed in black and yellow, team colors of the "Thirty-Sixers," as those who favor a narrower street have come to be known. Small black-and-yellow-striped ribbons are pinned on jackets and purses. The larger ribbons serve as pompons, to be flapped vigorously in the air as a show of support or derision, whichever the occasion warrants.

The Thirty-Sixers' enemies, the four-lane-loving Forty-Fours, wear no readily discernible uniform, but there is a sameness to their membership nonetheless. Most appear to be men in their sixties wearing jackets and ties.

The bout begins as crowd favorite and Thirty-Sixer Vance Edwards--a 24-year-old second-term councilman who still lives at home with his mother--is forced to defend himself against a handful of his colleagues who have threatened him with public censure for his actions regarding 38th Avenue.

"What a bunch of crybabies!" Edwards snaps, staring down his council opponents. "You're really pathetic. You want to censure me? I'll give you something to censure me for. I find you morally bankrupt, kind of weasely and without spines."

Edwards's tag-team partners, councilwomen Claudia Worth and Jean Fields, then join in the action. "I'd like to make a friendly amendment to have my name added to the censure," says the tough-talking Worth, who in the late Eighties was placed under police protection when handgun legislation she introduced led to threats from angry local gun owners. "In this case, I'd consider it a badge of honor."

"This is grossly unfair," Fields chimes in. "I have rights. I want to be censured, too."

"That's enough grandstanding for one night," growls Councilman Don Eafanti, who demands that the council hurry up and vote on whether to censure the trio. The vote is even-Steven, 4-4, but Mayor Dan Wilde casts the tiebreaker, resulting in an official censure, an action that is to be duly noted in the local Wheat Ridge Jefferson Sentinel. Score one for the Forty-Fours.

The crowd goes wild. It hoots. It boos. Ribbons flap furiously. The fight then spills over into the public-comment portion of the meeting, as scores of outraged citizens vent their spleens.

One man suggests that, if built to 44 feet, West 38th Avenue should be known by the acronym CUSPIDOR, which he says would stand for "Cronyism," Untrustworthy," "Stupidity" and several other choice words that he spits out.

Resident Karen Thiessen launches a counterattack at those who voted to censure Edwards. "At least he has the guts to do what's right," she scolds. So adamant is she about having her say that Thiessen refuses to yield the floor at the end of her designated three-minute speech. Attempting to shut her up, Wilde then calls for a recess and walks away. But he's only partially successful. Thiessen's words bounce off his retreating back as he leaves the dais. "Don't you want me to be safe, Mr. Mayor?" she shouts, her voice booming over the microphone.

Mayor Wilde won't bring the gavel down until 2:30 a.m., seven and a half hours after the meeting was called to order. But the meeting's end marks only a respite in the fight. The battle will continue at the next council gathering and probably at the one after that. For the debate over widening one short portion of West 38th Avenue already has endured at least a dozen years. It is no longer a question of how wide, and how many lanes, the street should be--if that was ever the real issue.

"It has become," says Councilwoman Worth, "a matter of a power play."

The land that is now Wheat Ridge was settled in 1859 by pie-in-the-sky pioneers who came hoping to strike it rich in the gold and silver fields but eventually settled for a more sedate agrarian life. The days when Wheat Ridge was known for its waving fields of celery are long gone, but it has retained some of that early bucolic feel, particularly in comparison to other Denver suburbs. An occasional horse and barn can be found among the Fifties-style ranch homes, and the annual Carnation Festival and Applewood Day still draw big crowds.

Many residents say they were drawn to the area by the laid-back, rural atmosphere, and they resent any attempt at urbanization and growth for the sake of growth. The city's population has remained on the short side of 30,000, within a few hundred of its size when it incorporated.

Wheat Ridge didn't become a city until August 1969, when residents finally voted to take on their own identity after years of pondering whether to be absorbed by a larger community such as Denver or Lakewood. And in forging the rules the city would live by, residents were leery about handing over too much control to a local government.

Voters made sure they retained the ability to keep a tight leash on elected officials; each of the eight council seats, the mayor's post and that of the city clerk and city treasurer are up for election every two years. That makes it easy to vote the rascals out but creates nightmarish possibilities when it comes to continuity. The citizens also made the mayor a figurehead with little real power; he or she presides over council meetings and official city ceremonies, but a mayoral vote counts only when necessary to break a tie.

One pressing political issue in Wheat Ridge, even before the city was incorporated, was how to expand West 38th Avenue, one of the primary east-west corridors through the area. "In the Fifties," says Councilwoman Worth, "Denver widened 38th from downtown to Tennyson, and the plan was to continue it on to Sheridan," which now marks the dividing line between Denver and Wheat Ridge. As Worth tells it, some old-time Wheat Ridge residents got swept up in the excitement of having four-lane thoroughfares crisscross the town. Those people, she says, never let loose of the idea that more lanes went hand in hand with progress, growth and a healthier bottom line. "That mindset," she says, "has never changed. They think four lanes is the most important road that ever was."

Asphalt flowed virtually unabated through Wheat Ridge for almost twenty years, even though city residents sometimes refused to surrender without a fight. West 32nd Avenue was widened to accommodate traffic to and from Lutheran Medical Center. West 44th Avenue was four-laned. And West 38th Avenue was widened to four lanes and repaved slowly, block by block. But when the time came to widen a two-lane, one-mile stretch of West 38th from Cody to Kipling, the city council hit a roadblock.

In 1983 it looked as though the city was ready to go to work on the stretch of West 38th Avenue just west of Lutheran Medical Center. It was (and still is) a narrow patch of road lined primarily with private homes and suffering from poor drainage and a lack of sidewalks. Some of the side streets leading to it are extremely steep, making winter driving dicey. Residents have complained for years that pedestrians, many of them children who walk to two nearby schools, are in near-constant danger of being run over.

When they proposed a sidewalk extension and a new curb and gutter arrangement eleven years ago, city engineers designed a 44-foot-wide street. But the neighbors just weren't ready for that, and the council was torn. "I think we voted for it to be 34 feet wide," says Nancy Snow, who sat on the council and chaired the city's street committee. "I thought we'd finally get it done. But then there was a big ruckus." Residents and councilmembers alike engaged in attacks and counterattacks. Finally, Snow says, the council decided "the hell with it" and simply shelved all plans to work on the road.

The one person who remained solidly in favor of the 44-foot alignment was then-mayor Hank Stites, recalls Snow, who dishes out opinions with a bluntness common to Wheat Ridge politics. "His goal in life," she says of the former mayor, "is to pave everything. I call him, `You-Name-It-He'll-Pave-It Stites.'"

Stites, a tire store owner, makes no bones about being a supporter of wide streets. But his position, he says, has nothing to do with a love of asphalt. He cites safety concerns, traffic flow and future growth as reasons for widening the street to the maximum width. Ambulance drivers and firefighters prefer four lanes, he says, and so does he. He always has. But as mayor, he didn't have the power to force his opinions on the city and the recalcitrant residents along West 38th Avenue.

Ray Winger, who served as mayor from 1991 to 1993, found himself equally powerless in 1992, when the issue of widening the road was again brought before council by residents concerned about the lack of sidewalks. City engineers conducted studies on whether to widen West 38th to 36 or 44 feet but were unable to recommend a plan of action--in their eyes, either width was workable. City officials then held a number of public meetings to gauge community feelings about the road.

In the summer of 1992, recalls Wheat Ridge resident Lisa Rosson, Councilwoman Elise Brougham came calling and distributed fliers notifying people about a meeting regarding West 38th Avenue to be held at Lutheran Medical Center. The meeting was slated specifically to address the business community, Rosson says, "but [Brougham] wanted us to come. And the citizens did come. There were probably about 200 or 300 people there. That was the first time I'd seen the plans."

Rosson says her first thought on viewing the proposed four-lane design was that there was no way the city was going to build a highway in front of her childhood home, chopping down a thirty-year-old elm tree in the process. "Initially, I only thought about its effect on me," she says. "It's since grown into a concern for the effect on Wheat Ridge."

Rosson was incensed. She and a group of neighbors quickly circled the wagons. They formed Neighbors for a Safer Community (now known as the Thirty-Sixers), gathered 500 signatures in favor of a three-lane road and presented it to council. The animosity continued to grow from there.

"Mayor Winger was such a stinker," Rosson says, "that we decided to recall him, and he flipped out." Then, she says, Councilman William Shanley showed up at her door warning that a recall action could backfire, resulting in a vote by council for the wider street. Rosson, believing the councilman might be trying to threaten her physically, filed a police report over the incident. Shanley denied that he'd tried to intimidate her, and Wheat Ridge police later determined the complaint to be unwarranted.

Just one month after the volatile meeting at Lutheran, the city council approved a 36-foot, three-lane plan for the road. Rosson gives the council credit for paying attention. Winger, however, says that neighbors "whined and threatened everyone. One or two council people were intimidated, I guess, and they voted for 36 feet."

Angered by the council vote, Winger decided he could still get a four-lane road by taking the issue to a vote of the people. But he didn't have enough votes to swing the council, which has the power to place items on the ballot. Instead, the city staff was directed to come up with a three-lane design (the plan, still unused, cost the city $130,000).

Neighbors along 38th then lined up to sign construction easements that would allow the city to come onto their property while making the necessary street improvements. They accepted the city's token $10 payment for the use of their property, glad that the issue had finally been settled and that they'd soon be getting sidewalks alongside their newly-widened, 36-foot road.

But Winger still wasn't ready to give up. Before leaving office in November 1993--he says one angst-ridden term was enough--he made yet another attempt to put the street-widening issue to a vote. His idea this time: a petition drive that would allow him to bypass the council and go directly to voters.

Winger found a ready ally in Stites and former mayor Homer Roesener. The triumvirate (which Vance Edwards refers to as "Larry, Moe and Curly"), backed by a local political action committee--Wheat Ridge Alliance for Progress, or WRAP--was able to keep the four-lane fight alive.

WRAP, a contingent of mostly retired businessmen, had organized in 1990 as a "think tank" to address city issues, says WRAP president George Langdon, a "semi-retired" businessman who claims to have brought the first Orange Julius stand to Colorado. "The whole city should vote on it, because the whole city uses it and the whole city is going to pay for it to be redone," says Langdon, who blames Vance Edwards for "riling up" area residents and providing bad information that has led to unwarranted confusion and anger.

WRAP mailed out postcards prior to the 1993 general election in which it castigated candidates who were pushing for the 36-foot alignment. Vance Edwards, for example, was taken to task for his "unruly and militant behavior...at times laced with profanity." ("I get the feeling they just don't like me," Edwards says of WRAP.) But the Wheat Ridge voters seemed to like the councilman just fine--they re-elected Edwards last November.

Other candidates targeted by WRAP fared more poorly. Rosson, who'd thrown her hat in the ring for a council seat, was criticized for her voiced intention to recall Winger. She lost. Incumbent Brougham, who was described in a WRAP postcard as lacking "the background [and] experience for the council seat," also was defeated.

Plans to build the road to 36 feet went forward even in the face of WRAP's opposition. The Thirty-Sixers figured the fight was through. "I didn't think they'd have the guts to try anything else," Rosson says.

But WRAP continued to push the petition drafted by Winger. In late March, when city officials were "literally a day away" from requesting bids on the three-lane project, says city administrator Bob Middaugh, WRAP presented the city clerk with 1,800 signatures calling for a public vote on the issue.

Rosson and her neighbors in the Thirty-Sixers had an attorney look over the petitions. Lo and behold, the lawyer found a "fatal flaw" in the documents; a new state law that went into effect the summer before had changed the way petitions were supposed to be drawn up, and WRAP hadn't followed the letter of the law. The city attorney and the city clerk subsequently agreed with that assessment, and the signatures were declared invalid. Theoretically, the issue should have been dead. But even though the petitions had been thrown out, some councilmembers began to rethink their positions in the face of WRAP's public pressure.

"Two thousand signatures in a town of 29,000 tells me a lot," says Councilman Dennis Hall, who professes to remain neutral in the road war. "What that tells me is not that the road should be 44 feet, but that it's a situation where everyone should vote. There are certainly situations where people have the right to say they want it decided by themselves. And here's 2,000 people that say that."

A flurry of special council meetings followed. And on April 12 the council voted 5-3 (with Edwards, Worth and Fields dissenting) to hold a special fall election to determine the will of the people regarding West 38th Avenue. As a result, the widening project was once again postponed indefinitely.

Edwards was furious. "They're gutless and don't have enough spine or background to make a decision," he says today, still fuming. "That's why they're elected to council--to make a decision."

On May 23 Edwards spotted an opportunity to reverse what he saw as a betrayal by his colleagues and made a seat-of-the pants decision to act. When three of his opponents didn't show up for that night's council meeting, Edwards found himself as part of the majority. In a move Hall termed "underhanded politicking" and "an attempt to thwart the democratic process," Edwards proposed that the West 38th Avenue matter be dropped from the fall ballot. The motion passed, meaning--in theory, anyway--that construction on a 36-foot alignment could proceed.

But following rulings by a parliamentarian and the city attorney, Edwards's actions were declared illegal and were reversed at the next council meeting. They also were the reason for his public censure. "He knew what he did would get undone," Hall says of Edwards's attempt to stymie a public vote, "and I told him so. But it got him headlines. In the end, it accomplished absolutely nothing but get his picture in the paper and stir everyone up again."

So it now appears that the issue will go to a public vote in November after all. The Thirty-Sixers and the Forty-Fours are gearing up for the election, holding garage sales and fundraising drives in an effort to drum up enough money to get their points across with yard signs and newspaper ads. Each side claims the other is proceeding illegally or trying to hoodwink residents.

Meanwhile, many of the residents along West 38th Avenue are demanding that their signed construction easements be returned by the city, essentially rescinding the right to use their land during street construction. They say city officials will have to sue them or condemn their land if they plan to go forward with a four-lane road. "My guess," says city administrator Middaugh, "is that we could end up doing a significant amount of condemnation and paying a significant amount for that"--a process that would drive the cost of a 44-foot street even higher.

No one seems to know which way the vote will go in November. No matter what happens, many residents doubt anything will ever actually be done to the street. And, notes Winger, when and if the issue is ever decided, there's always the matter of whether or not to widen West 38th Avenue from Kipling to Youngfield.

"But I'm not going to push that one," he says. "I've had enough trouble.


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