Rita Bertolli first noticed the work crews in the ravine last April. From the kitchen of her family's home, at the end of a Green Mountain cul-de-sac, she could see them out there, taking measurements and planting little red flags in the high grass.
The hubbub struck Bertolli, a 23-year-old film student at the University of Colorado, as extremely strange. She'd grown up in the house on Oregon Court, and the ravine had always been there -- undeveloped, if not exactly undisturbed. Neighbors had used the area since the subdivision was built in the early 1970s, exercising their dogs along well-worn trails or hiking up the draw and across Alameda Parkway to a trailhead leading into Hayden Park. Deer, foxes and other wildlife came down from the park on a regular basis in search of forage or water. Signs posted around the area by the City of Lakewood declared it a "future park site" and a "dog training area" and banned dumping and motorized vehicles.
Bertolli and her father contacted city officials about the sudden activity on the property and received some unwelcome news. "They said it was private property and there was a plan to build condos there," she recalls.
Despite a widespread belief among Green Mountain residents that the entire ravine was city open space, the upper 3.75 acres of the property has been privately owned for decades. And current plans to build on the site -- there's been talk of up to sixty condo units, or $200,000 patio homes, or a senior facility -- have Bertolli and some of her neighbors hopping mad. They've raised concerns about property values, increased traffic and pollution, and other impacts development might have on what they regard as a key drainage area and wildlife corridor. They also claim that city officials misled residents about the property's ownership and failed to act quickly once its true status became known, when the land could still have been acquired as open space for a fraction of what the present owner is seeking.
"The city made a mistake," Bertolli says. "They had a chance to remedy it, but they came and told us, 'We can't buy it because we don't have any money.' We did all these negotiations with the state and Jefferson County Open Space; we even had people in the neighborhood who were willing to put in some large donations. But it became this political thing, and it just kept going around in circles."
Lakewood City Manager Mike Rock denies that the city misled anyone. The signs bordering the property referred to the lower part of the ravine, which belongs to Lakewood, he says.
"There is a portion that belongs to the city and a portion that is simply undeveloped, and in the minds of many people, they were melded together," Rock says. "But the city never considered [the upper parcel to be] open space. We've collected property taxes on it every year, and it's been zoned for development since the rest of the residential area was zoned."
The parcel has been zoned for multi-family housing, up to twenty units per acre, since 1972. According to city records, the property passed through various owners who took no action -- including some who failed to keep current on tax payments. Last spring, a company called Uncas and its thirty-year-old principal, Justin Spensley, picked it up for $50,000 and an agreement to pay back taxes. He then shopped it around, reportedly at an asking price of as much as $1.5 million, before finally selling the property last November to developer Richard Todd for $350,000.
Bertolli doesn't dispute that Todd is the legal owner of the land. She contends, however, that city staffers have muddied the ownership issue over the years. Her own extensive research of public records has turned up a 1987 map designating the area as open space. Add to that city signs on private land (some since removed), neighbors' recollections of city workers spraying the land for insects in the 1980s, the designation of the entire ravine as an off-leash area for dogs, and other official acts, she says, and it's easy to see why some neighbors feel they've been conned for thirty years.
Gary Kehr, a recent arrival to the neighborhood, says he contacted the city in 2002 before making an offer on his house to confirm that the area behind his new home wasn't zoned for development. "The guy looked it up and told me it was all open space, that the ravine could never be built on," he recalls. "I was shocked to find out that wasn't true."
City Manager Rock says he wouldn't be surprised to find out that the city had sprayed the land at some point to protect its adjoining property. "I can't address what maps drawn in the '80s might have shown, but that certainly wouldn't turn the property into public property," he says.
And Kehr's complaint that he was misinformed? "It's hard to respond to something like that," Rock says. "Every map and zoning document we currently have shows it's private property. I can't understand why anybody at the city would identify this as open space."
Since neighbors learned of Spensley's purchase last spring, they've leapt into action with petitions, proposals for conservation easements, and other strategies. The Audubon Society of Greater Denver has weighed in, declaring that the parcel has "considerable value" as a wildlife corridor. But even assuming a willing seller and an available pot of open-space funds -- two big ifs -- the price of the property keeps getting higher.
Todd says he originally intended to develop "some sort of senior empty-nester product" on the land, but he's also had discussions with residents about a possible open-space acquisition -- if they can put together the funds. His price for such a purchase is now many times what Spensley paid for the land less than a year ago.
"I'm not out to tread on somebody's rights or ruin anybody's quality of life," he says. "But I'm a businessperson, and I don't see half a dozen people coming up with a million bucks to acquire three acres of ground. If I do develop the property, I'm probably going to go for the maximum on it because I've had to hassle so much with it."
Todd has complained of minor vandalism on the property and vowed to put up a fence. Shortly after Christmas, he bulldozed an access road onto the land and was slapped with a stop-work order; Rock says he failed to obtain a required permit. (Todd denies that he needed a permit.) To date, he has not submitted a development application or provided soil studies or other information the city requires before he can build on the land.
"He has the right to proceed, and we have the responsibility to watch it very closely and get the best win-win we can," says city councilman Tom Booher.
A few weeks ago, the parcel was placed on the city's priority list for future open-space acquisition. That's no small accomplishment, given that the southwest portion of Lakewood already contains more than 40 percent of the city's open space, while other wards have almost none. But the city also tends to avoid pursuing properties for open space if the owner isn't eager to sell, and the ravine parcel may fall into that category.
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"Our hope is that once he finds out the economics of developing his property, he may be interested in finding alternatives," says Don Ferega, president of the Green Mountain Beech Park Association, a local homeowners' group.
But not everyone in Green Mountain is pinning their hopes on what Todd might decide. Bertolli and others are contemplating legal action and have contacted a lawyer to look into the matter. "Unfortunately, the city is reluctant to get embroiled in this mess," says the group's attorney, Mark L. Davis. "But there is a problem here."
Bertolli has placed a large sign of her own ("Save Our Ravine") outside her parents' back door. Recently, Lakewood police officers visited her, asking questions about some surveyor stakes that had been pulled up from Todd's property. Bertolli, who is making a film about the ravine, denied having anything to do with the stakes' disappearance.
"I was like, 'Why are you downloading on me? Should I call my attorney?'" she recalls. "And they said, 'No, no, we're not downloading on you.' After you say the word 'attorney,' everything changes."