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|February 26-March 4, 2009
Last year, a California landlord blocked the west exit at Vista Village,
cutting off residents’ access to parks and bike paths. Now, City Council
may invoke the power of eminent domain to tear down the fence.
by Pamela White
In Boulder, it’s not unusual to meet people who claim to have spirit animals who act as guides for them. It’s a bit less common to meet people who wish they were animals. But many residents of Vista Village, a mobile-home park located off Airport Road, say they wish they were prairie dogs. And they’ve written a song about it.
“I wish I were a Boulder prairie doggie / That is what I’d truly like to be / ’Cause if I were a Boulder prairie doggie / City Council would be in love with me.”
From their point of view, the lack of action they feel the city has taken so far to remove an unwanted wooden fence erected by their landlord last spring demonstrates that City Council considers them to be less deserving of help than prairie dogs, which have been
the subject of much debate, a few studies and considerable city spending.
“It would be only fair if we got at least equal treatment as prairie dogs,” says Kevin Cook, a seven-year Vista Village resident.
The fence was erected almost one year ago by the out-of-state owner of Vista Village — California businessman Harvey Miller — without any warning to Vista Village residents, blocking the only west-facing exit from the park. Now, residents who once had safe and easy access to bus stops, bike paths and nearby Christiansen Park must take one of two east-facing exits down to the intersection of Airport and Valmont roads — a route they say is more dangerous, especially for children. And although residents have taken their concerns to members of City Council, they’re unsatisfied with the city’s proposed solution, a new path that would take them on a detour along a drainage ditch behind an adjacent community-housing project. They think the city ought to take Miller to court to force him to remove the fence. Anything less, they say, lowers the value of their homes, endangers their safety and renders them second-class citizens without the same access to the rest of the neighborhood as everyone else.
Cook and other Vista Village residents may be in for a pleasant surprise when City Council meets on March 3. Concerned about the welfare of the neighborhood and frustrated by Miller’s refusal to return phone calls, some City Council members are prepared to explore legal options, including exercising the power of eminent domain, to force Miller to take the fence down.
The fence that has raised the ire of so many stands at the end of Butte Street, turning a road that for more than 20 years gave access to a bike path into a dead end. Not only does the fence prevent anyone in the Kings Ridge development to the west from using Butte Street to reach Valmont City Park, it also prevents anyone who lives in Vista Village from accessing the bike paths and public park in the Kings Ridge area. Higher than the security fence that surrounds the Vista Village property, it has heavy planks on both sides to prevent someone from trying to squeeze past it. Anchored with steel beams embedded in concrete, it gives the impression of being
there to stay.
Why the fence is there no one seems to know. Vista Village residents say Miller has never deigned to explain his reasons to them.
One day, the fence was simply there. Perhaps Miller was prompted by looming changes in the state’s adverse-possession law to
block non-residents from walking on his property. Perhaps he didn’t like the dog poop left behind by folks strolling though Vista Village toward Valmont City Park, though certainly he himself has never been at risk of stepping in it. He doesn’t live here, but has managers who handle operations at Vista Village for him, while he pursues other interests in California.
Before the fence was built, Kevin Cook, a master gardener, used the now-blocked exit to pedal to his various work sites. Since April, he’s had to bike out to Airport Road, down to Valmont Road and around the corner in order to pick up the bike path there. Though it only adds a handful of minutes to his commute, this new route is significantly more dangerous because it subjects him to heavy automobile traffic that he didn’t face before. But Cook is more concerned for women and children than he is for himself.
Tanya Petty has lived at Vista Village for almost 20 years. A mother of three, she’s seen her morning routine change as a result of the fence. Her two teenage boys used to leave home via the west exit to get to a bus stop on Valmont that took them to their private school in Longmont. For a time after the fence went up, her boys simply climbed it. But a few torn school uniforms later, Petty decided climbing couldn’t be an option.
Instead, the boys used the east exit and walked down Airport Road to the bus stop at the intersection of Airport and Valmont. But then her boys encountered people leaving the Addiction Recovery Center (ARC), as well as newly released inmates from Boulder County Jail, and some of those encounters were scary.
“One man was stumbling drunk and was trying to cross the street to talk to my son, and the guy almost got hit by a car,” she says.
“Another lady was passed out. They thought she was dead or something was wrong with her, so they went over, and she just lost her mind on them.
“Another guy was way out there — I don’t know if he was on acid or what — but he was dancing with the cars in the middle of the road and trying to dodge them and just waving at them and having a good old time.”
So the boys began to cut along a dirt path behind Noble Park Village, a community-housing project on the corner of Airport and Valmont. But that didn’t prove to be any safer.
“A couple of kids who live there who are part of a quasi gang pulled knives on them and told them they’d slit their throats if they ever came back on their property again,” Petty says.
Nowadays, Petty, whose 11-year-old daughter is home schooled, drives her boys to and from a bus stop 15 minutes away from Vista Village so that she’s sure they’ll be safe. She doesn’t understand why she and her family should be put through this kind of inconvenience for the sake of a fence that seems to serve no good purpose.
Cook and Petty both expressed concern for the residents of Vista Village should an emergency occur that requires them to flee the park. With only two east-facing exits that empty onto the same road, there might be a day when the fence costs lives by preventing people from leaving on foot to the west, they say.
From Cook’s point of view, the fence sends the signal to everyone in Vista Village that they’re second-class citizens who don’t need to be notified or consulted regarding changes that will affect their lives.
Cook and Petty aren’t the only Vista Village residents upset by the fence. They have organized together with an estimated two-thirds of the park’s residents to ask Boulder City Council to intervene on their behalf. The majority of the residents are afraid to oppose Miller publicly for fear of retaliation, they say.
Boulder Weekly received a half-dozen calls and e-mails from people claiming to be Vista Village residents who spoke about the issue but refused to give their names for fear of being evicted and losing the investment they’ve made on their mobile homes.
And, indeed, the relationship between Miller and the residents of Vista Village seems to be troubled. Residents who’ve been clamoring for the removal of the fence earned Miller’s ire on Feb. 21, when managers spied them gathered at the fence with signs and reported what they saw to Miller. Miller then reportedly called the Boulder police and asked for police intervention. By the time police arrived, however, the gathering had dispersed.
Cook says he and the others who’d gathered at the fence had been making a video about the fence for YouTube. He says he was told by police that officers wouldn’t have ticketed anyone because the activity was peaceful and because those involved live in Vista Village.
Residents describe Miller’s call to police as intimidation and say that they have First Amendment rights, regardless of where they live. They want to see those rights protected — and they want the city to intervene to remove the fence.
The search for solutions
Cook says that he and other Vista Village residents first approached city officials when the fence was built in an effort to have it taken down.
“Our issue kind of got overshadowed by Orchard Grove,” he says, referring to the struggle faced by residents of another Boulder mobile-home park.
In that case, the owner wanted to sell the land to a developer. And though Cook says he understands why Orchard Grove was City Council’s priority at the time, he thinks he and other Vista Ridge residents have waited long enough for the city to take meaningful action.
But city staffers haven’t been ignoring the situation. They’ve already tried to negotiate with Miller for the removal of the fence but quickly hit an impasse.
Having explored a variety of options, city staff came forward at the end of January with a solution that would keep the city out of court, while at the same time addressing some of the problems created by the fence.
Under their proposal, the city would spend $125,000 to convert an existing footpath immediately behind units at Noble Park Village into a 10-foot-wide concrete multiuse path that connects with the Wonderland Creek path to the west.
Vista Village residents aren’t satisfied by the proposal, which still leaves them without a west-facing exit and still requires them to go out of their way if they want to get to the Wonderland Creek path or Christiansen Park.
They also fear that the city’s alternative fails to address safety concerns. The dirt path city officials chose is the same dirt path Tanya Petty’s boys were on when other young men confronted them with knives.
“When the City Council said it was the safe alternative, I was like, ‘Yeah, right. You’ve never been back there,’” she says.
The path runs so close to the residences at Noble Park Village with their miniscule fenced-in backyards that in some places it’s possible to reach right over the fence without stepping off the path. A bicycle, discarded cloths and lots of trash are scattered along the overgrown drainage ditch, while branches from trees and bushes create what Cook calls “rapist habitat.”
They say it makes more sense for the city to use some of that $125,000 to take Miller to court.
“It all comes down to the fact that he created a danger zone by putting that fence up and it would be easily fixed by taking the fence down,” Cook says.
Though, as their song indicates, some Vista Village residents might believe that City Council does, indeed, have more sympathy for prairie dogs than mobile-home owners, there are some on City Council who are very concerned about the situation at Vista Village.
City Councilwoman Lisa Morzel has been to Vista Village and listened to residents’ concerns. She’s walked through the neighborhood to get the lay of the land. And although she appreciates the effort city staff have made to find an alternative that doesn’t involve litigation, she says she isn’t certain another paved path is the answer.
“It’s very close to existing residences, and we have not heard from the people who live in those residences, so I don’t know what they would think of having people walk by there,” she says. “Clearly there would need to be a lot of mitigation done, including installation of some lights, which I think would also be a problem for some of the [Noble Park] residents.”
Putting a concrete, lighted path almost literally in the backyards of families in Noble Park essentially pits two less-advantaged communities against one another. The attempt to address concerns of Vista Village residents turns into concerns for Noble Park residents.
“The proposed path is very, very close to their homes,” Morzel says. “We wouldn’t do that to anybody else. You don’t want somebody so close to your home that they can just grab a child out of the backyard.”
Although the proposed alternative route isn’t that much longer than the blocked route, the increase in distance is enough that it would likely be difficult for some, she says.
“While that distance isn’t that great, imagine if you’re older,” she says. “Imagine if you’re 3 or 4 years old with little legs. Imagine if you’re carrying home groceries and have a toddler in hand or a senior parent. All of these things become big, big issues of just having access to the same amenities that everyone else in this community has.”
As for the issue of safety, Morzel says that, although she doesn’t want to stigmatize jail inmates or ARC clients and knows most of them wouldn’t harm children, she can understand parents’ concerns about the bus stop at Airport and Valmont.
“All it takes is one person to take your little girl away, so why are we even allowing that?” she says.
Morzel says she was distressed to learn that the fence is pushing people into cars who otherwise had been riding bikes or taking public transportation.
“I don’t think that’s what we want either,” she says. “We’re trying to encourage people to use alternative modes when they can, and this is going completely against that policy.”
There are other issues at stake, as well.
Morzel is a strong believer in the importance of “permeability” in order to provide residents with access to the public amenities they fund through their taxes. People who live in Vista Village helped pay for a park and multiuse paths that they now must go out of their way to reach, she says.
She also has a “real problem” with the idea of a mobile-home park being fenced in as Vista Village now is.
“The people who live in mobile-home parks are already at a disadvantage for not owning the land on which their homes are situated,” she says. “I think that in our community, something like Boulder, there clearly are different groups in the community, and there are many of these groups who feel that they’re not part of the broader community.”
Having neighborhoods that offer easy access to other areas of the city encourages what Morzel likes to call “accidental encounters.”
“You’re at the park talking to another parent. Your children are playing together. People start getting to know one another, and in those initial encounters you’re unaware of social distinctions,” she says. “You don’t know that they live in a single-family detached residence, and they don’t know you live in a mobile home. I think in our society we have a lot of need to cross those invisible boundaries, and this makes it a very obvious boundary that makes it very difficult for anybody to cross.”
Petty recalls getting to know a woman from the Kings Ridge neighborhood who had the same kind of dog Petty has. The two first ran into each other on the bike path and said hello because they were both walking west highland terriers. Gradually, they began to talk and get to know a little bit about one another.
“I haven’t run into her since they put the fence up,” Petty says.
From Morzel’s point of view, it may be time for City Council to explore an alternative she would ordinarily oppose — invoking the power of eminent domain.
No second-class citizens
“I believe I have enough votes to support me in directing the city manager and the city attorney to start proceedings that would involve eminent domain that would allow access through that property,” Morzel says. “If Mr. Miller is not interested in responding to us and opening up the gate or giving us an explanation that holds some water as to why he put this fence up in the first place, that would be one thing. It’s one thing if somebody does something and you might not like it, but they explain it and you understand why they did what they did. But it’s another thing to lock them up and then not explain your action.”
If the city doesn’t act, Morzel is afraid of the precedent it would set.
“It’s saying that the people in Vista Village are second-class citizens and are subject to a feudal-acting landlord,” she says. “I’m concerned about the message it sends — that these are second-class citizens and they don’t have the same rights as everybody else in our community has for a permeable neighborhood.”
Morzel says she’s been discussing the issue with other council members and found them to be concerned about the residents of Vista Village and the message sent by Miller’s actions. But exercising eminent domain — a process by which a government entity
seizes private property — is controversial and potentially expensive, as it involves a court battle.
“We take eminent domain very, very seriously,” Morzel says. “It’s not something that you just do. And the cost is also somewhat expensive. It’s not a fixed cost. But this is a matter of principle, and while the staff can recommend this alternative route, it really takes some political will to have the backbone to say, ‘Look, we’re not going to have second-class citizens in this community. You can’t fence them off. That’s just wrong.’
“As a basic principle, I’m not going to have two-tier populations living in this community if I can avoid that. This is something that is so apparent. I personally and several other council members think something needs to be done to open the fence, and I think this is the only thing that does it. If Mr. Miller could call us back and let us know what the problem was, maybe we could address that, but he won’t.”
Morzel has personally called Miller, but got no response.
Miller did not return a call from Boulder Weekly and has not spoken about the fence to any local media.
City Councilwoman Angelique Espinoza says she wants to visit Vista Village and explore the issue further before making a statement about the direction City Council should go.
“My main concerns have to do with the residents of Vista Village,” she says. “I’m concerned about their emergency egress. Now their only egress is on the east side, and, of course, with these recent fires that was really highlighted. And I’m also concerned about the access residents have to nearby neighborhoods and amenities. And I’m concerned that the residents feel intimidated to stand up for themselves because of their vulnerability as mobile-home owners.”
Espinoza says mobile-home owners are particularly vulnerable. They own their homes, but not the ground on which their homes stand. If they’re evicted, they often lose their homes, together with the thousands of dollars they spent to buy their homes, as most can’t afford the expense of having their mobile home moved to another location.
“The question I need to pursue further is what exactly the role of the city is, and I think because those mobile-home owners are so vulnerable, it kind of presses the city into a role that might not be obvious if they were more able to advocate for themselves,” she says.
Espinoza says she finds Miller’s refusal to return phone calls “quite puzzling and quite consternating.”
“Clearly the city would be willing to make a good-faith effort to work this out, and it’s quite troubling that the property owner has been so incommunicative,” she says.
The issue of Vista Village will likely come up at City Council’s March 3 meeting, and this time Vista Village residents will see their issues in the spotlight.
“The citizens [in Vista Village] have been very patient,” Morzel says. “This has gone on for almost a year. They’ve come to us very patiently and identified this issue and come almost every week. This clearly is a major concern for them, and we represent this group of residents as much as we represent anything else. These people have a voice, and I think they should be represented.”
To watch the Vista Village residents’ video about the fence, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=UuvYJ-mud3U
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