Steamboat Springs Residents of West Acres Mobile Home Park were feeling less like second-class citizens Thursday after the
Colorado Court of Appeals reversed a District Court ruling and affirmed that the mobile home owners have the right to sue the city of Steamboat Springs to be compensated for the loss of a greenbelt the city condemned to build a road.
“We’re second-class citizens because we don’t own the land” under the mobile homes, Tom Williams said. “The city doesn’t view us as real people because we don’t own the land. This is a move in the right direction. I’m pretty excited.”
Thursday’s ruling sets aside the lower court ruling by District Judge Shelley Hill that the homeowners don’t have legal standing because they don’t own the “dirt under their feet.”
West Acres is a 30-year-old neighborhood of 92 households in western Steamboat. Unless they have friends who live there, most Steamboat residents have probably never glimpsed it.
But the neighborhood made news in 2009 as it tried to fight back when the city began construction on the Gloria Gossard Parkway, which could shatter the quiet in the subdivision.
The Appeals Court ruling doesn’t award compensation to the homeowners but paves the way for them to go back to District Court and seek it for the degree to which a jury agrees the new road diminishes the value of their homes.
Steamboat lawyer John Grassby, who represented the homeowners with lawyer Vance Halvorson, said his clients want a jury trial. He characterized the Appeals Court ruling as a victory for working-class people who feel they’ve been wronged by government.
“I hope people of modest means understand that they have options if they feel their rights are being violated by city government,” Grassby said.
City Council President Cari Hermacinski said Thursday that she would comment on the ruling if City Attorney Tony Lettunich told her it was appropriate. Lettunich did not return a phone call. The city has 45 days to appeal the ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court.
Statutes protect parties
Grassby said the legal question at the heart of the ruling is contained in statutory language cited in a five-page Appeals Court decision. It says that anyone who claims an interest in a property or transaction, who is in a position such that the result of the transaction would impede his or her ability to protect that interest, may intervene in a suit or legal proceeding.
The city didn’t see it that way in October 2006, when it began proceedings to condemn privately held land where the planned road would closely follow the northern boundary of the mobile home park.
To build the road, which is intended to provide a major access route to future residential development in the West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan, the city entered condemnation hearings on some commercial properties near Downhill and West Acres drives. The city did not think it needed to condemn the West Acres open space because it already had acquired title to the pair of greenbelts on the north and south sides of the mobile home park in 1989 when it annexed the area into the city.
Ironically, it was Chief District Judge Michael O’Hara who ruled in 2008 that the city’s title to the greenbelts was limited to its existence as open space and would not permit conversion to use as a road without condemnation. The city then came to an agreement with mobile home park owner Charles Williams on the use of the greenbelts.
The West Acres residents objected strongly to the construction of the road and retained Grassby to help them join a lawsuit filed by nearby commercial property owner C.D. Johnson and to seek compensation for the loss of the greenbelt.
Although the residents were vocal in their opposition to the road, their court action was based on their financial interest in the greenbelts.
“It was never about stopping the road,” Williams said. “We want to be compensated for the loss.”
Grassby initiated independent appraisals for each home in West Acres with and without the greenbelts, and on that basis, sought a settlement of about $400,000 from the city with specific amounts averaging $5,000 per household. For homes closest to the greenbelts, the difference in value found by the appraiser was as high as $11,500. The city offered the neighborhood $40,000 total.
“That was like they were thumbing their nose at us,” Williams said.
However, when Grassby asked the District Court to add his clients to the condemnation lawsuit, city staff attorney Dan Foote argued that as renters of their lots, the homeowners were not entitled to a financial stake in the greenbelts.
Hill agreed and ruled in May 2009 that state statutes do not give them an interest in the property and that any claims they might have should have been filed against their landlord and not against the city.
Grassby said he and Halvorson were stunned at the ruling.
Hill indicated through an intermediary Thursday that she was not able to speak independently to the press about the Appeals Court ruling. O’Hara was out of the office.
West Acres resident Dan Bruce said he thinks his neighborhood’s dispute with the city is a classic case of “the little guy getting bombed over by bigger interests.”
Williams said he told the Steamboat Springs City Council that taking the greenbelt from his neighborhood was premature, and the reversal of fortunes in the development and real estate market here makes the new Gloria Gossard Parkway “truly a road to nowhere.”
Time may prove otherwise, but for now, the residents of one of Steamboat’s remaining mobile home parks have a measure of vindication.