Becoming Rita Valentine Park: How a failed subdivision turned into one of Steamboat’s most coveted and controversial playgrounds
May 27, 2014
Steamboat Springs — Almost 30 years ago, the city of Steamboat Springs invited its residents to strap on cross-country skis and glide across 40 acres of pristine land the city had just acquired from two real estate developers who had fallen on hard times.
"What should we do with it?", the city asked its residents and its parks and recreation and planning commissions in January of 1985.
It’s a question that continues to stir plenty of debate today.
There were plenty of possibilities when the land, located off of Anglers Drive, first was donated to the city.
The deed to this property valued at more than $900,000 carried only two restrictions.
The land had to be used for municipal purposes, and it could not be sold by the city for at least 10 years so that the developers who donated it could get the tax benefit they desired.
Meeting minutes from that 1985 council meeting announcing the land acquisition reveal that the donors, John Curci and Louis Turner, also told the city through an attorney they would be willing to consider waiving the selling restriction if the city decided it wanted to sell parts of the land.
The council’s initial celebration of the land didn’t last long.
A month later, the council was sweating the fact that the land was going to cost the city $14,668 in property taxes.
The council even considered offering to pay that property tax only if the two deed restrictions were removed completely.
In June, the deed was revised to shorten the resale restriction from 10 years to five.
Fast forward 29 years, and the land is now the pristine Rita Valentine Park, named for the woman who by all accounts played the pivotal role in convincing the developers to donate the land.
It’s land that is cherished by neighbors whose backyards bump up against it and who enjoy walking their dogs over gently rolling hills.
It’s also land that has been eyed over the years as a more developed park, a home for a new police station, a building site for a new high school and a nine-hole, par-three golf course.
Rita herself dreamed of having horse stables on this land, a neighbor recalled this month.
Today, much of the history of how the park came to be has been forgotten by several of the people who were closest to the land donation.
Mick Mahoney, the city manager of Steamboat at the time, said he still remembers being fired at 3 a.m. in the 1980s after pushing for a tax on lift tickets to pay for a golf course.
But he said last week from his home on the Front Range, he can’t recall anything about the Curci-Turner land acquisition.
Joe Brennan, who was on the City Council when the land was gifted, can’t recall much about the specifics of the donation either.
And Jim Holloway, one of the three people who was thanked by city officials for negotiating for the land, also can’t remember anything about the 40 acres from his current office in San Clemente, California.
This hasn’t stopped the community from calling up the history of the park, sometimes incorrectly, as they advocate for its future.
Some are adamant it was donated to be undeveloped open space forever.
Some mistakenly think the land was donated by Rita Valentine herself.
Others still see plenty of room at the park for things like a disc golf course and other recreational amenities.
A failed subdivision
To fully understand the history of how this park came to be, one can start by looking out from the wooden fence that lines Don Valentine’s home on Anglers Pond.
With a dog in tow, Valentine points across the street at the rolling green hills in Rita Valentine Park that end at rows of older homes on quiet cul-de-sacs off of Anglers Drive.
To the left, a man pulls up a dirt driveway in the park and gets out to throw a Frisbee to his dog.
"You always see a ton of cars pull up there during the day," Valentine said on a recent sunny spring day.
Valentine and his wife, Rita, a celebrated Steamboat City Council member and proponent of open space who died in 1997, both used to live in the Springs subdivision that borders the park, not far from Don Valentine’s current home.
Curci and Turner, from Newport Beach, California, originally planned to continue developing that subdivision on their land that became the park.
"It would have never worked," Valentine said of the planned development.
After the first homes at the Springs were built, Valentine said the real estate market "hit a brick wall" in the early 1980s.
The front page of the Steamboat Pilot on Jan. 10, 1985, revealed just how bad the economic climate in Steamboat was at the time.
On this day, the Sheraton Steamboat Resort surprised the community when it announced in January it would close for the entire summer season.
The Curci-Turner land deal was reported to be finalized in the same Steamboat Pilot newspaper.
Knowing the prospects of development were poor at the time for these out-of-state developers, Don Valentine said Rita spent a lot of time convincing Curci and Turner to donate the land to the city as open space.
Many community members who were around at the time recalled Rita was a very charismatic and persuasive person.
A bad economy helped to secure the deal, and the undeveloped land in the Valentines’ backyard became the pristine open space that it is today.
"We were really subject back then to the ups and downs of the economy," said Tony Lettunich, the current city attorney who represented Curci and Turner when they made the land donation. "The developers weren’t selling anything. They realized nobody wants to buy the remaining phases. Then they thought let’s lick our wounds and get some donation benefit and move on."
Lettunich recalled that Rita Valentine knew Curci and Turner because she purchased land from them in the Springs Subdivision.
Lettunich said the restriction on the deed that prevented the city from selling the 40 acres for a number of years was added to enable the developers to get their tax benefit from the donation.
Two years later, a developer from Texas also was convinced his prospects in Steamboat were fading and decided to donate 35 acres of his land to the city and get a tax benefit.
Don Valentine said he helped convince Bill Harvey to donate that land that extends from Rita Valentine Park.
The deed to the M&H property in 1987 specifically stated the land was not being donated as a park.
"My speculation is they realized, everybody realized at the time that if they donated the land and said it should be a park, that would tie the hands of the city,” Lettunich said.
The 40 acres donated by Curci and Turner didn’t become a park until 1992 by a vote of the City Council. The M&H parcel didn’t become a park until 1997.
These votes to this day do not prohibit the development of recreational amenities on the land, but they do prevent the city from selling the properties or rezoning them without a successful vote of the people.
Even after the land became a park, some community members saw it as a land for many opportunities.
A golf course, a school and a police station
Before a neighbor’s complaint recently led to the carting away of some children’s makeshift bike ramps from Rita Valentine Park, many people watched their dreams for this land fade away.
The city’s idea last year to build a police station on a small corner of the sagebrush-covered hills in the heart of a residential area never gained any traction with the community.
A disc golf course that had been staked out there was swiftly removed in 2010 after an outcry.
And a big box of conceptual plans for a nine-hole, par-three golf course envisioned for the park in the 1990s now is collecting dust in former Steamboat City Council member John Holloway’s storage unit.
"It just didn’t gain enough traction," Holloway recalled this month.
Also in the 1990s, the Steamboat Springs School Board quickly found out their idea to possibly build a new high school on part of the park also was not acceptable to the neighbors.
Many neighbors of Rita Valentine Park, and some community members who live farther away, have made it clear they don’t want to see any of it developed, not even with things commonly found in other parks like playgrounds or basketball courts.
They say it would impact wildlife, bring unwanted noise and ruin a pristine piece of open space.
Proponents of development have equated some of this opposition to a "not-in-my-backyard" mentality.
Standing at his fence last week, Valentine asserts himself as one of the biggest defenders of the park.
He asks again and again why anyone would want to touch it.
"It seems people want to do something with it just because it’s here," he said.
The people who use the park today have a wide range of visions for it.
A man walking his dog says he likes it as it is.
A woman jogging through says there’s plenty of room for children to add bike jumps or a disc golf course.
On June 11, the history of the park will again be revisited when Steamboat’s Parks and Recreation Commission once again calls the question.
“What should we do with it?”