Saying goodbye to junk

Court rules Yampa man must get rid of junkyard on his property

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Tom Cole sits at his kitchen table in his house near Yampa, a black cap pulled low on his forehead.

There is no room on the table for a plate and barely enough room to glance across and see a child sitting on the other side. The space is taken up by piles of stuff: an open bag of wheat bread, papers, glass containers, candy.

The scene is repeated throughout Cole's home, with books on drawing, old painted pictures and appliances that look long retired, stacked high, leaving only a small path from room to room.

Outside, the log home sits in the middle of 3 acres of junk, the junkyard that Cole says he's always wanted to own.

Cole is 55. He chain smokes. His whiskered chin turns up into a smile and his eyes sparkle as he talks about his junk. It's obvious he loves his job.

In his yard, there are rusted pickups, long-dead cars, worn-out ovens and piles of metal scraps. There are piles of mattresses, bags of tin cans, chunks of broken glass and even a cab of a semitrailer.

It's the life that Cole wanted ever since his father purchased the property on Routt County Road 7, also known as the scenic byway to Stillwater Reservoir and the Flat Tops, about 40 years ago.

Cole likes tinkering with old cars and appliances, making things work that others would throw out, and finding parts to keep old machines running. He likes being his own boss and not having to drive to work.

He doesn't do it for the money. Cole said he sells his junk for about one third of the cost of junk from Steamboat, and the amount he makes annually is just enough for him and his family to get through the year.

"One of the reasons I've never made a good living is I give people a good deal," Cole said. "People need good deals."

But now, under a court order, Cole has 90 days to clear every last tire, radiator and mattress off his land.

The junkyard doesn't comply with zoning regulations passed by Routt County in 1972. It was grandfathered into the area because it existed before the zoning regulations were passed, but in recent years the junkyard has become too big for the county's taste.

After the Routt County Board of Commissioners brought a lawsuit against Cole in May 2002, a judge ruled that Cole could keep the junkyard for 15 years if he cut its size and kept only 50 junk vehicles at a time. There were other conditions as well, such as that Cole had to build a fence around the junkyard and remove any unallowable trash.

For each violation of those conditions, Cole would have fewer years to keep the junkyard. After the fifth violation, the junkyard would be shut down.

That fifth violation was presented in court Wednesday, and 14th Judicial District Judge Paul McLimans ruled that the junkyard should be terminated.

Cole said he's resigned himself to the fact that the junkyard has to close. In June, he put signs up to sell his home, and now he's planning to move his family to Palisade.

"I said to heck with them. I'm not going to fight them anymore," he said. "It's come down to where I just gave up. I'd rather clear the place up and sell it and move out of this county."

After spending thousands on attorney fees during the past year, Cole said he can't afford any more bills. He gave away his junk to a man from Granby who is going to haul it off during the next month or so.

When he tells customers the junkyard is going to close, they are often surprised or upset, he said.

"One guy said, 'If this closes down, how are we going to keep our older cars running?'" Cole said.

The junkyard has become a fixture in South Routt County. Ranchers, hikers, police officers, hunters and more -- a few dozen people a week -- stop by the junkyard to look for parts or make a special request, Cole said.

Cole's neighbor, George Trujillo, said the junkyard has never bothered him and that he's sad to see it close.

"I hate what they did," Trujillo said about the court's decision. "Routt County took away his right to make a living. This county thinks this is a scenic byway and it is beautiful, but if they look to this side and don't like it, then look the other way."

For Cole, the court ruling marks the end of a family tradition. That, he said, is tough.

"There ain't no words for it, I guess, just upset," he said about how he felt when the court ordered that he close.

"Especially when you're not hurting nobody. This junkyard ain't hurting anybody."

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