The Wonder Years

Mike Speck believes in life, liberty and the pursuit of happily doing whatever you want to do on your own property.

Since 1989, he's lived in Wonderview, one of the last affordable neighborhoods in Evergreen, a 33-home subdivision where, historically, everything from tidy lawns to eccentric yard art to benign neglect has been tolerated. "I can walk right into almost anyone's house and open the fridge," Speck says. "Kids can play in the street. I'm a single dad, and that's why I moved here, and also -- because my house was a dump at the time -- I could afford it. Everyone knows each other and gets along and helps each other...and leaves each other alone."

Speck has made liberal use of this physical and psychological space. His compound -- after a serious cleaning -- is a mélange of supplies for his contracting business, parts for his various Harleys, and bargain motor vehicles, including an RV briefly occupied by a guy named Josea who had no place to live last winter. Yes, there are white-trash elements, but there's also a $40,000 Lincoln in the driveway and fresh paint on the house. And Speck's proud of the way he's used leftover building materials for home improvement -- a remodeled kitchen, a new deck and a hot-tub enclosure, among other projects.

"But I do get carried away," he admits. In fact, what started as a hot-tub room is now two stories high and contains a greenhouse, a wet bar and a second-story deck, because "every guy needs a clubhouse. I didn't get permits, but no one around here does."

These days, they might want to reconsider.

At the start of the year, Speck returned from vacation to an onslaught of county citations. Ten months later, he's able to organize them into three categories: dog-at-large tickets, zoning violations and health-department complaints, most of which have now landed in county court or are back at planning and zoning. Buried in the piles of impenetrable documents is a clear message: Wonderview's notoriously loose standards are tightening up.

Exhibit A: Nine households have signed a petition asking that Speck's deck be relocated in accordance with Jefferson County setback requirements. Speck takes this personally: Whoever heard of a setback in Wonderview?

Speck is a Chicago guy who speaks in a kind of biker/blues blarney, and he's seldom met a person with whom he wouldn't want to have a beer. As he works his way through paperwork and hearings and mediation sessions, charming and exasperating various officials along his path, he prefers to concentrate on the human issues rather than the cold, hard facts. And what interests him most is the schism between the neighbors who like Wonderview the way it is and those who want it cleaned up.

"I appear to be fucking with their world," he theorizes. Perhaps with the occasional raucous party? The loud blues music? Visits from the old-time biker pals who still call him Spike?

"Or maybe," he says, "they have just forgotten how to have fun."

Or maybe, just maybe, he helped push the situation into overdrive.

One night a few years ago, the Wonderview water main broke, and Speck, as a member of the community water board, went to fix it. "I got a jackhammer, found the shutoff and started digging," he recalls. "There were a few of us out there. We're freezing our asses off! And okay, we're having a couple of beers, because that's just common sense. One of our neighbors drives up, doesn't offer to help. Asks if we have a permit! I think I might have yelled something like, 'I don't need no goddamn permit.' I hear that's where they drew the line."

In a town where a starter home can easily cost half a million dollars, Wonderview remains true to its roots, with dirt roads and smallish houses, some rebuilt roughly on the bones of 1920s-era summer cabins. In the late '50s, it was incorporated as a haven for horse-lovers -- but that was before its water supply proved inadequate for livestock.

When Rhea Slowik moved here 33 years ago, only a thousand families lived in Evergreen year-round, and Wonderview was still mostly a summer enclave. Still, the only reason she'd ever leave now is if it somehow became necessary to lock her car or her house. And while there are no signs of that happening, the neighborhood isn't what it used to be, she says.

"Our covenants expired in the late '80s," Slowick explains, "and some people began dropping the ball with regard to caring for their property. Mike is a good neighbor, but he built things without permits. I feel bad for him, having to go through all this. But how much of a blind eye can any neighborhood afford to turn before someone is doing something dastardly? If you let this kind of thing continue, eventually you can't protest a thing."

It could be argued that Speck's property is far from Wonderview's most unorthodox. Other houses on his street feature tar-paper siding, drifts of cars and trucks, and stockpiles of lumber. Bill Beroo, who lives across the street, has decorated his yard with old tractors, one loop of a mining railway and a car shop the size of a Quonset hut -- set on its own giant asphalt parking lot and containing over fifty gas pumps.

"The people who are mad at Mike are jackasses," Beroo opines. "He and I were fixing a water main in a ditch, and we had a beer or something. It didn't bother me at the time, and it don't bother me now. People that pull building permits get their butts in a sling, anyway. My good God, if the county's gonna get involved, let them find someone who's really breaking the law."

Tana Hetrick, a nearby veterinarian, concurs.

"They should leave Mike the hell alone," she says. "It's been live and let live around here for a long time, but these people have some kind of burr under their saddle. I know they'll go after me, too."

Hetrick collects what she calls bathroom art, an impressive hoard of old porcelain plumbing fixtures leaning heavily toward toilets. "I plant them with flowers," she explains. "I even have toilets you can sit on to admire the other toilets. If anyone needs an old non-water-saving toilet, I give it to them, and I have all the colors. And sometimes I'll wake up to see that someone has dropped off a couple more. In the summer, it's just a riot of color.

"But it's not everyone's idea of pretty," she concedes. "I know I'm next."

And what a debate that could start: The Toilet -- Junk or Art? But even simple zoning violations get complex in Wonderview. For example, Slowick points out, you can't complain about junk cars if every one of the vehicles is registered -- although some neighbors have tried.

"And who cares, anyway?" asks Bill Borman, whose property borders Speck's improperly zoned deck. "People want to turn this into The Ridge at Hiwan, and it just can't be done. I don't mind Mike's place. I don't mind any of them. It's none of my business."

Since January, Speck has been working to correct some of his many offenses -- even as he lets other deadlines slip by. He's cleaned up outdoor trash, gotten rid of Josea and his dog and had instructive chats with the health department about the gray area that is gray water.

"The county is so nice to me!" he says. "They're really so good. The same woman keeps coming out here and helping me."

"Working with him is kind of a win-win," agrees Tammy Ferrell, Speck's planning and zoning caseworker -- not that he's likely to win his various requests for zoning exemptions, she adds.

The Jeffco sheriff's department tried sending Speck through mediation. "The other guys brought along a big portfolio filled with pictures of what was wrong in the neighborhood," he recalls. "So I brought one, too -- filled with Playboys." Sooner or later, Speck figures, someone besides him will see the humor in all this. But they'd better get to that point soon, before order prevails.

"There's not the same good feeling in the neighborhood," he concludes. "It bugs me that not as many kids are out in the street playing. I work in some really fancy neighborhoods, and the streets there are empty. People don't even know each other. I don't want that to happen. That's not why I'm here."

In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff