Trial begins over Oak Street building addition

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— Attorneys on both sides in the city of Steamboat Springs' lawsuit against a local chiropractor squared off in district court here Tuesday.

The dispute centers around an addition to David Criste's building at 434 Oak St. and whether he had permission to build it, or if he in fact violated the conditions of his city development permit issued in 1993. The city's main objection is that the addition was altered after the development permit was issued so that it extended into side setbacks.

At stake is the possibility Criste could be required to tear down the addition if he loses the lawsuit.

Through witnesses called by the city Tuesday, City Attorney Tony Lettunich sought to show that Criste knowingly exceeded the terms of his city permit to add a second story on his building.

Criste's attorney, Edward Serr, used cross-examination to try to establish that city officials should have known, when they signed off on building permits for the addition, that Criste had made the changes.

Serr tackled the issue of whether his client deceived the city head-on during cross-examination of former city planning director Anne Muhme. He asked her if she believed the building permit application Criste submitted was disingenuous.

"Ms. Muhme, do you believe Dr. Criste was trying to deceive you with the site plan?" Serr asked.

"Now that I see the drawings are inconsistent I question," she replied.

Four former city officials were on the stand in district court Tuesday, testifying about the complicated series of events that led up to the trial. Along with Muhme, former city manager Van James, and former city planners Karen Campbell and Karl Gabrielson were all called to testify.

District Court Judge Richard Doucette is presiding over the trial. At times Tuesday, he grew impatient with the two lead attorneys.

At one point, Doucette threatened to end Serr's cross-examination of a witness by excusing the witness. And on another occasion, he cautioned Lettunich that if he chose to ask two more questions of the same witness, he would do so "at his own peril."

Through the testimony of the witnesses, Lettunich brought out the fact that the the foundation permit which allowed Criste to begin construction was attached to City Council minutes from a public hearing in which his development permit was approved.

Those minutes contained the conditions of approval for the building addition, and the building permit was issued subject to those conditions, Muhme testified.

"The setback had to be recorded with the clerk and recorder," Muhme testified.

Under cross-examination, Serr attempted to show that the building permit application submitted by his client contained the information Muhme would have needed to know the original plans had been altered.

Serr pointed out to Muhme that Criste's development permit called for a building of 1,440 square feet and the building permit listed a measurement of 1,495 square feet. Serr asked Muhme if she hadn't noticed the difference.

"Actually, I didn't look at that line," Muhme responded. She added that, in building permits, square footage is recorded primarily for purposes of determining the permit fee.

"Not only was it of no concern to you, but you just didn't look," Serr countered.

He went on to say that, had Muhme noticed the width of the structure described in the building permit, and subtracted it from the lot width, she could have deduced that the addition, as it appeared in the building permit, was encroaching into the side setbacks.

Serr was also able to establish through cross-examination of Muhme and Campbell that although the city signed off on Criste's original foundation permit, it was never informed by the county building department that it had issued the final building permit for construction of the addition. While the building department was issuing the final permit, the city was pursuing public hearings to amend the development permit so that the changes to the building addition could be allowed.

Doucette called the lack of communication between the city planning department and the building department "incredible."

Another key element in Tuesday's testimony was whether Criste had received adequate notice that by, continuing to build with a foundation permit, he was proceeding at his own risk.

Serr produced a series of city letters to a variety of parties in which no written reference was made to his client proceeding at his own risk.

But Lettunich was able to to establish that the foundation permit contained a stamped, cautionary note to that affect.

Lettunich called former city manager Van James, now working in Flower Mound, Texas, to testify about the matter. James said he told Muhme to advise Criste of the risk involved in building with a foundation permit.

"He was to be advised that he was proceeding at his own risk," James said. "That was very specific direction."

Serr called building contractor and draftsman Paul Wellman to the stand as his first witness late Tuesday afternoon.

Wellman was scheduled to be back on the stand beginning at 8:30 a.m. today for cross-examination by city attorneys.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210, or e-mail tomross@amigo.net

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