The only remaining plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging a high-rise development across the street from Sloan's Lake have withdrawn from the case — a move that a frustrated neighborhood group claims is the result of "improper influence" on the part of the developer, which allegedly offered to buy the plaintiffs' home at above-market value if they would drop the suit.
But the executive who met with the family denies making any such offer and says the family was misled by the neighborhood group about the nature of the litigation.
The dispute has generated yet another round of heated accusations over the much-disputed infill project, which will bring hundreds of new residents to the fourteen-acre site. "What they did was way overreaching," says Larry Ambrose, a vocal opponent of the St. Anthony redevelopment project and write-in mayoral candidate last year. "This is not over."
City planners have long envisioned a mix of retail, office space, apartments and other amenities at the seven-block site as a catalyst for rejuvenating a gritty stretch of West Colfax Avenue. The plan took a big leap forward with the 2013 acquisition of the site by EnviroFinance Group, which aimed to parcel out the properties to different developers. But as reported in my 2014 feature "High Anxiety," objections quickly arose among Sloan's Lake residents as it became clear that the general development plan for the project differed significantly from neighborhood plans drawn up just a few years earlier.
Many considered the GDP out of character with the neighborhood, especially given the prospect of rezoning the site to allow for twelve- or twenty-story apartment houses on the north end of the property, looming over the park.
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Ambrose, a Sloan's Lake resident who is also president of Denver Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation (INC), a coalition of more than a hundred neighborhood organizations, and other neighbors decided to contest the project's rezoning approval in court — "in response," a Sloan's Lake Neighborhood Association press release explains, "to broad opposition to the unchecked building development that has characterized Denver public policies in the past several years."
Last fall, a judge ruled that the case could proceed but dismissed most of the neighbors from the suit, ruling that only those who lived within 200 feet of the proposed high-rise had standing to sue.
That left only Agripino and Ana Torres and members of their family as plaintiffs in the case.
Final arguments had been submitted and a ruling anticipated early this year. But in December the Torres family sent a letter to Denver District Judge Andrew McCallin asking that their names be removed from the lawsuit and denying that they'd ever hired the plaintiff's attorney in the case, David Medina, to "present a lawsuit against the city."
Subsequent communications with Agripino and Ana Torres by Medina, a private investigator, and Ambrose and his wife indicated that Cameron Bertron, a senior vice president of EnviroFinance Group who has spearheaded the redevelopment effort, visited the couple at the restaurant they own in Westminster. According to affidavits submitted to the court, Agripino Torres told Jane Parker-Ambrose that someone from EFG — Bertron is not specified — offered him $700,000 for his house.
Although Torres declined to sell, he did agree to drop the lawsuit. Bertron also apparently advised the couple where to send the letter notifying the court of their withdrawal.
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Attorneys for EnviroFinance Group have conceded that Bertron contacted the plaintiffs but have denied that anything improper occurred. While lawyers are not supposed to directly contact parties on the opposite side who are represented by counsel, there's no law against the principals in a lawsuit thrashing things out on their own. But plaintiff's attorney Medina is fighting dismissal of the case, arguing that the opponents ought to be allowed to reinstate other neighbors as plaintiffs and that Bertron's "egregious actions" might be a violation of statutes that prohibit witness tampering.
"I would strongly deny any wrongdoing," says Berton, who maintains that he's met with members of the Torres family on numerous occasions during the redevelopment process and never offered to purchase their house. He also denies that anyone from his company ever made such an offer.
Agripino and Ana Torres also are named plaintiffs in a second lawsuit by neighbors against the project that was filed in December, just days after their letter to the court asking to be removed from the first case. "It's clear to me that in the second lawsuit, they didn't even ask the Torreses for their permission before filing the suit," Bertron says. "If there's a story here, that's the story — that the Sloan's Lake Neighborhood Association had this family named in a lawsuit, and they clearly didn't know it or understand it. And when they did, they asked to be let out."
In a court document, Medina asserts that he "participated in numerous conversations with members of the Torres family...in the course of which they agreed to be plaintiffs in this case." Agripino and Ana Torres could not be reached for comment.