About five years ago, 55-year-old Al Luce envisioned his dream home on an affordable lot in Silver Spur.
He purchased the lot and began plans for a rammed-earth home. Luce thought the building process, similar to the process used with adobe, would be less expensive than putting up a stick-built home.
The home also would be energy efficient and provide a comfortable place for him and his wife, Delana, to retire.
Those visions and plans, however, have become a financial and emotional nightmare for the Luces.
The home is far from finished, and the couple is embroiled in legal wrangling with the Silver Spur Homeowner Association.
Frustrated with the slow building process, which has far exceeded the one-year time limit for construction in the subdivision's covenants, the association placed a lien on the property last year and later received a preliminary injunction to have it removed.
Although its intention wasn't to destroy the home, the injunction was necessary to force Luce to communicate clear plans for completing the project, said Paul Mitchell, former vice president of the association.
"Our goal was to be able to tell the rest of the community what Al's house was going to look like, when it
will be finished, and whether it will be on schedule," he said.
Al Luce contends the legal problems are only further impeding the construction process, already complicated by weather, financing and other problems.
"I'm in agreement with the association. ... I want to get it done," he said. "I don't agree with how they have gone about it. I maintain it's counterproductive."
The two parties reached a settlement earlier this year, stipulating Luce complete the home by Aug. 31. Even with the help of a builder and crew, however, Mitchell said Luce has fallen behind on the construction schedule.
Luce now has two weeks to show the association he is serious about making progress and getting back on track or he will default on the settlement.
"We are really wrestling with this, and we want it to be complete," Mitchell said. "We don't want to tear it down ... but this is the only option to show that he's serious."
But the situation isn't quite so black and white for Luce, who is struggling to ease the concerns of the company financing the project while paying off an enormous credit card debt that has accumulated throughout the project.
He's nervous about talking to anybody on the street for fear someone might see him not working, and when he is on the job, Luce must keep his mounting stress and depression at bay to lead the crew, he said.
With each day, his confidence in realizing his original vision wanes.
"I thought we were beyond the bulldozing phase, but now I'm not so sure," he said.
Luce received a permit to begin work on the home's foundation in October 2001. Shortly after excavation began, a big snowstorm set off a long winter that shut down the operation until the spring.
By the next summer, Luce and a helper completed the foundation and began the time-intensive process of mixing concrete and sand and pouring it into forms for the structure walls.
In fall 2002, about two months after walking through the home, representatives from Vectra Bank told Luce they no longer would finance the project because of a lack of progress.
"The loss of financing was the kiss of death," Luce said.
Work on the home halted throughout the entire next winter as Luce tried to refinance the home through local and national mortgage companies and banks. They all said the project didn't fit their parameters.
One of the factors preventing refinancing was the Luces' existing home in downtown Steamboat Springs, which hadn't yet sold, Luce said.
By the summer of 2003, Luce still had no financing and began racking up $100,000 in credit card bills. The credit card companies soon raised their interest rates on that debt to as much as 28 percent, he said.
Luce worked on the project as much as he could, even working some nights with a headlamp.
In addition to a lack of financing, Luce's progress was slowed considerably by the lack of engineering drawings, which were not completed until summer 2004.
With no drawings and no previous experience building a rammed-earth home, Luce had trouble building certain elements of the structure. Some parts later had to be rebuilt, he said.
Although Luce considers the lack of drawings "another little thing along the way," Silver Spur resident Jim Ballard, who lives about a block away from the Luce lot, said the engineering plans should have been much higher on Luce's priority list.
"You're never going to get financing when the engineering isn't done," said Ballard, who is in the finance business.
In July 2003, nearly three years after the project started, the Silver Spur Homeowner's Association board sent Luce a letter of noncompliance for violating covenants, which stipulate that when a home is started, "all construction and alteration work shall be prosecuted diligently and each building, structure or improvement which is commenced on any lot shall be entirely completed within 12 months."
After receiving no response from Luce, the association in September fined him $250. More fines were tacked onto that in the following months.
In February 2004, Luce met with the association board and agreed to finish the project by December of that year. The board also requested Luce pay the fees, which would be returned to him if the deadline was met.
However, the agreement was contingent on Luce coming up with a projected timeline and manpower schedule for the project.
"We weren't trying to be punitive," Mitchell said. "We just wanted to give him incentive to get it done."
Luce, who said he had to take care of family business in Minnesota and also was busy trying to get financing, never responded with the plans or signed written agreement.
In April, the increasingly frustrated association board placed a lien on Luce's property for about $1,250 in unpaid fees.
Mitchell said the association had been forthright with its intentions if Luce did not pay the fines and that many of the legal problems would have been prevented if Luce had communicated with the board.
"Our perspective is if it's a common goal, he needed to spend some time with the HOA to establish that common goal," Mitchell said. "When given the opportunity to settle it between ourselves, he dropped the ball."
Luce said he told the board in February that he could not pay the fees, but asked them to wait to put a lien on his property until after he secured financing.
It all piles up
On Sept. 1, as Delana Luce was walking home from her job as a janitor at Steamboat Springs High School, she received a summons to appear in court for a lawsuit filed by the homeowner association.
Among the complaints was that construction was not completed in a year and that Luce never received approval for the home from neighbors within 500 feet of the property.
On Sept. 28, a judge granted a preliminary injunction ordering the Luces to remove the home and all construction materials from the lot and install landscaping in its place.
The injunction was a worst-case scenario that the association hoped would lead to a settlement and construction plan with Luce -- what they wanted all along, Mitchell said.
The decision was a huge blow to the Luces, who feared they lost any chance of refinancing and had to face the reality of their broken dream.
"My wife was crying, she had a breakdown," Luce said. "It had a tremendous pressure on our marriage."
Things began to look up in October, when the Luces sold their existing home. They were able to pay off some debt, and a local mortgage company was warming up to the idea of refinancing their project -- on the condition they reach a settlement with the association.
In February, the Luces reluctantly agreed to a settlement requiring them to finish their home by Aug. 31 and all landscaping by Oct. 31. In return, the association agreed to release its lien on the Luces' property.
The association also compromised with the Luces on noncompliance fees and attorney's fees, which had amounted to almost $16,000. The Luces have to pay $7,000 in monthly payments of $1,000, and will not owe the balance if they meet their construction deadline.
"I had to accept the stipulation," Luce said. "I could have gone some other legal route, but I had to get financing."
Among the many factors complicating the situation between Luce and the homeowner association is the association itself, which was transferred from the developers to homeowners after Luce began building the home.
According to the association's original complaint, the Luce home plans were "dissimilar" and "nonconforming" to other nearby homes, but were approved by the original architectural review committee on the condition neighbors within 500 feet approve the plans, which never happened.
One of the developers on the committee, W.C. White, apparently had written the condition on Luce's plans, which the association has requested but never received, Mitchell said.
Luce contends White simply asked Luce to inform his neighbors of his plans, which he did.
White, who doesn't remember many details of the approval process, does recall Luce's plan met the initial architectural requirements for approval.
"We would not have approved it if it had not fit those requirements," he said.
Another problem is that the new association never filed bylaws, which are like an operating manual for HOAs, with the state. This frustrated Luce as he tried to investigate and verify the powers and controls of the association.
The new HOA, which overlooked the bylaw process as it got its bearings, is working to ratifying and file official bylaws, Mitchell said.
Despite these complications, most Silver Spur residents agree the dispute between Luce and the HOA boils down to the time it has taken Luce to build the home.
"It's been an eyesore," Silver Spur resident Jim Ballard said. "If they (the HOA members) don't enforce the covenants in one situation, they lose the right to enforce the covenants in another situation.
"I don't think they have a choice but to enforce the covenants."
Other nearby residents, including Laura Frey, understand how the seemingly never-ending construction site would frustrate neighbors, but think the HOA's preliminary injunction was excessive.
"I think a lot of residents were very unhappy they pursued that and got an attorney to pursue that," she said.
The legal issues likely will only compound building progress, she said.
"I think the homeowner's association has also been a roadblock in getting things done," Frey said.
After the settlement, the HOA, Luce and the builder met to discuss a timeline for reaching the August deadline. Based on the builder's estimations of labor and manpower, Mitchell made a line graph showing how much progress should be made every two weeks.
The project is considerably behind schedule, according to the graph, which allows some flexibility, Mitchell said.
At the current rate of construction, Mitchell estimates the home will be only 40 percent finished by Aug. 31.
Luce disagrees, arguing the builder's estimations were meant to help establish a budget and weren't meant to be strict guidelines.
"We're not going to finish if we spend too much money," said Luce's builder, Peter VanDerWerf. "It's not just about time."
The amount of time and energy Luce has spent dealing with the finance company and the HOA has prevented him from providing the guidance the crew needs to finish the project, many details of which are in Luce's head, VanDerWerf said.
"Budget is a big deal," he said. "If the association got off his back, and we could do things at our pace ... I think we have a pretty good shot at it."
Although the HOA and most immediate neighbors have reached their threshold of frustration, residents such as Liz Langley and Ted Serafy are ready to lend their support to Luce.
One night, the couple, dressed in their work clothes, walked to Luce's house and offered a hand.
"From my perspective, he's doing everything he can," Serafy said. "I don't know all the details, but to have an injunction to have it bulldozed seems inappropriate.
"I think if it ever really came to that, the people here would do everything they could to stop it," he said.
Mitchell, however, maintains that the HOA has been as flexible as possible and ultimately is responsible for upholding the interests of the entire community.
"To say Al is the only one who has emotions wrapped up in the issue isn't fair," Mitchell said. "It's a tough thing. ... Someone has to step up to the plate, and it's the board's responsibility to ensure this community is what people bought into."
On his part, all Luce can do is keep his nose to the grindstone -- though he can't help but ponder the worst-case scenario: Losing the home and the more than $400,000 in retirement money and life savings he has put into it.
"I just hope I get to live here," he said.
-- To reach Tamera Manzanares call 871-4204 or e-mail email@example.com