Of all the indignities Elizabeth Matteson says she suffered at the hands of the government, the worst came after the Environmental Protection Agency had frightened away a tenant occupying the industrial building her husband built. It was after the agency had put up a chain-link fence around the property overnight. And it was after EPA workers had padlocked her out.
"One day I was driving by, and they had left the gate unlocked, so I drove in," the eighty-year-old Boulder widow recalls. "And there were these two young fellows dressed all in nice suits standing there. I said, 'Are you from the EPA?' and they said, 'Yes.' And then I said, 'Do you know who owns this building?' and they said, 'No.' I said, 'I own this building,' and they said, 'You do?' They didn't even know who I was."
Ever hear about the proverbial widow munched by big government? That's Matteson. "If you walked into somebody's house and stole everything valuable in it," she says, "it would be the same thing as what they did to me."
"I guess I see what the EPA was thinking," her courtly lawyer, John Cowan of Arvada, reflects. "But you would've thought there would've been a little more due process up front."
Matteson, he hastens to add, is "an extraordinary lady." Now, five years after the EPA took over her building, she's getting her revenge.
The story actually begins some forty years ago. "My husband moved here from Chicago in 1950," she says. "He had some money to invest, and so he looked around and told me, 'I've never seen a city in this country that doesn't grow up around its airport.' And so he bought this land over in Commerce City and built a warehouse. It is a beautiful building. It was huge, too, 25,000 square feet. When my husband died, that building was my livelihood."
Unfortunately, the warehouse, at 5355 Dahlia Street, turned out to be in the middle of a Superfund toxic-waste site. It was surrounded by hazardous goop on almost all sides. In 1990 the EPA decided it wanted the property closed down. The agency avoided subtlety.
"Mrs. Matteson had a plumbing distribution company leasing the building at the time," Cowan recalls. "And these EPA guys began showing up in moon suits telling the plumbing guys things like, 'I can't believe you're working here--you wouldn't breathe this air if you knew what was in it,' and 'You wouldn't believe how dangerous this ground is.' The EPA literally scared these guys out of the building.
"[EPA officials] took it over because they wanted to use it for a staging area to clean up the surrounding properties. The way we found this out was all through Mrs. Matteson's research. The agency had set up this new magic dirt-cleaning machine in her building--while she still owned it! Well, she had got herself on the EPA's mailing list, and they sent out an announcement about the new dirt machine; they were going to have a big press conference, the governor was going to be there, and so on. And Mrs. Matteson noticed the site for all this activity was her warehouse."
Cowan says he called the EPA and "threatened to make a big stink--bring our own reporters and hold our own news conference. The government cut Mrs. Matteson a check within four days."
Matteson brought two copies of the deed to the warehouse when the sale closed. The EPA brought a check for $225,000. The deal was done, and a copy of the EPA's check was recorded in the Adams County Assessor's office. End of story.
"But a year later," says Cowan, "Mrs. Matteson gets this letter from the assessor. And it's a tax bill for the warehouse. So she calls me and says, 'Why do I have this tax bill?' And I told her to just call the assessor--it wasn't her property anymore, and it wasn't her problem."
The assessor looked up 5355 Dahlia and told Matteson she still owned it. The tax bills kept coming: $990 in 1992, $990 again in 1993, and $997 in 1994.
Still, it wasn't until after a call from a development company that Cowan decided something needed to be done. "This nice young woman called me and said, 'We'd like to buy your warehouse,'" he recalls. "And I said, 'Wait, wait, wait--we don't own it.' And she said, 'Well, I looked it up at the assessor's office, and it's owned by Mrs. Matteson.' I told her, 'I'd love to sell it to you, but we don't own it.' Finally, I called the EPA."
The EPA lawyer who had handled the purchase of the warehouse had quit and moved on to private practice. Another EPA lawyer, Richard Sisk, tracked down the attorney and told this story to Cowan:
After the closing, the original lawyer sent one deed to the government's land-acquisition people and kept one himself. "This guy had worked for the government, so he knows," Cowan says. "He knew the guy he sent the first deed to would lose it. Which, of course, he did.
"So the lawyer tells him he has one more chance and sends the second deed. Which also is lost."
With the tax bills piling up and no deeds left to squander, the EPA called Cowan and asked a favor: Would Elizabeth Matteson be willing to sign a new deed? That's when Cowan got cagey.
"I told him, 'I've gotten a hundred calls on this already. If we do another deed, Mrs. Matteson has to show up for the new closing. There's going to be new filing fees, and so on.' I said to him, 'We're going to need to be compensated.'"
The EPA then claimed to have found the lost deed and to have filed it with the assessor's office.
In the meantime, the EPA in late 1994 designated Matteson's warehouse as one of three areas in Commerce City that are part of the agency's showcase "brownfields" projects, in which the EPA encourages businesses to buy and develop land once designated as toxic by promising not to hold the owners liable for any old environmental problems that crop up.
Today, two of the Commerce City brownfields properties are progressing nicely, but one--the Sand Creek industrial site, which contains Mrs. Matteson's warehouse--is on indefinite hold. "Apparently," says a disgusted Tom Pike, the EPA's Sand Creek project director, "there's been some mixup over the deed."
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Mrs. Matteson's revenge.
Despite the EPA's claim to have recovered the property deed, as of last week, according to the Adams County Assessor's office, the warehouse at 5355 Dahlia was still owned by a Mrs. Matteson. And that's only the beginning of the mess.
The assessor's records also show that the delinquent property-tax liens for the 1992 and 1993 tax years were purchased by Alvin Werth of Henderson, who, after three years--on October 7, 1996--will become eligible to foreclose on the warehouse. Even more confusing, the 1994 delinquent taxes on the warehouse were purchased at a tax lien sale by yet another party, Marla Radetsky.
Debbie Waltemath, who works in the Adams County Treasurer's office, says she understands there is a dispute over the ownership of the property, with the EPA claiming rights. But, she points out, the law applies to everyone.
"You've got to file those deeds on time," she says. "Even if you're the