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Wednesday, October 17,2001

Screwy little neighborhood cults

By
Screwy little neighborhood cults
City and county empower angry bullies

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by Wayne Laugesen (letters@boulderweekly.com)

Far too often, newspapers are boring. Journalists manage to sanitize life, which is otherwise colorful, interesting and messy. And there's a reason for this. It's called the illusion of credibility. The more boring a newspaper can be, the less often it's ridiculed by politicians and their public relations flacks.

Dave Barry, a nationally syndicated humor columnist, summed it up best, writing: "The more boring a newspaper is, the more it is respected."

We try hard at Boulder Weekly not to bore the audience, and too often we fail. But sometimes I can tell when we've succeeded at not being boring. After a not-so-boring issue hits the streets, I typically hear the booming voice of the Boulder County Commission's public relations guy screaming at me over the phone to deliver a lecture about credibility. That's because whenever the commissioners try to do things like undo the First Amendment-a sensational move by local government-we get called to the carpet as being sensationalists, or ignoring the facts.

But in truth, life is sometimes sensational and must be reported as such. Some people and their actions, by their very nature, are sensational. So good reporting can appear sensational simply because it's true.

Case in point: reports on Tom Russell, co-founder and head honcho of the University Hill Neighborhood Association.

On three occasions in the past, this column reported on Russell's absurd harassment of students on University Hill. Excerpts were reprinted of e-mails Russell sent out, telling members of his association how to cause legal trouble for students and catch them doing bad things. His e-mails told how to spy on students with cameras. They told of efforts to get students expelled for relatively minor infractions of law.

Russell's actions, as reported in this column, were so outrageous they almost couldn't be believed. It was inconceivable to many readers that a man would move here from Texas, buy a house in a university neighborhood, and immediately start taking extreme efforts to banish students, renters and all rental properties from his vicinity. A few callers told me it must be hyperbole, because it sounded like a tale too tall to stand up.

Well readers, vindication has arrived.

At the Oct. 2 Boulder City Council meeting, 15 people took to the public podium to complain of severe, cruel and unusual harassment by the University Hill Neighborhood Association. Some were landlords, others were tenants. Some came with letters from neighbors who say they've been spied on, stalked, threatened and harassed by Russell and his minions.

Several landlords said they were taking personal risks by complaining about the neighborhood association publicly. They handed over a letter to the city council in which Tom Russell recommends that neighborhood association members target with vigilant observation anyone who doesn't support proposals for strict new ordinances that would hold landlords accountable for their tenants' behaviors.

The e-mail says: "We could get a list of [those] who testified. I know that one is kept as part of the Council minutes, and perhaps someone at the City could send it to us. Then, we could look up the properties of the complaining landlords and send someone around with a digital camera..."

Devan Boyd, a University of Colorado student, told of Russell calling police on innocent students just to cause them trouble. CU student Brooke Warburton said Russell prowls around her property, spying on her. He has come to the door twice in an effort to frighten and intimidate her with stories about women being taken into the mountains from the neighborhood to be brutally raped.

"We see him looking in the windows of our neighbors' homes," Warburton said.

The stories told to council were just like those I've heard for the two years that the University Hill Neighborhood Association has been on a crusade to run students away from University Hill.

And other stories, which the council didn't hear, are easy to find. Hill Resident Mathew Binger tells of a threatening letter from an attorney, not Russell, who belongs to the neighborhood association. The letter, on the lawyer's official stationery, demands that the resident install a sprinkler system, plant new sod and paint his fence, or else: "If these changes are not made, I can assure you that my neighbors are going to begin reporting you and your house on a daily basis for noise, trash, parking, snow shoveling and occupancy violations once the new ordinances go into effect later this year."

This isn't the first time Boulder has seen communal insanity by a vigilante neighborhood cult. In the late '90s, we saw similar activity in Fourmile Canyon, where a group called Residents Against Inappropriate Development (RAID) became obsessed with making life hell for any neighbors who weren't members of the club. RAID leaders, with enormous homes built on extreme slopes, worked hard to get new laws against big homes on slopes. They hid in trees to spy on neighbors they didn't like, and threw public parties to celebrate their nastiness.

The reason for this odd phenomenon is simple: local government, the city and the county bend over backwards to accommodate those who complain about the activities of their neighbors. Never does a councilmember or a county commissioner offer the appropriate response to a neighborhood fuss-budget who makes it a full-time hobby to obsess about the business of his neighbors. Never do they say: "Sorry, but we can't help you with this problem. This is something you will need to work out with your neighbor. We hope you will work to resolve this and try to be friends."

Instead, the local politicians respond with new rules and regulations in response to nearly every complaint. When Buddhist businessman Binx Selby said he would hold religious retreats in his new mountain home, RAID members complained. So the County Commission found a loophole around the First Amendment and outlawed religious gatherings in homes. They forged new territory and forbade religious institutions in mountain areas not zoned for "institutional" use. Never mind the fact that churches, synagogues, mosques and such have historically been zoned like homes in the United States, out of respect for the Bill of Rights.

And the city, in response to menacing Hill whiners like Russell, is considering bold new ordinances that would hold landlords responsible for something like 28 potential violations by tenants. To survive under these ordinances, of course, the landlords will need to violate the civil liberties and privacy rights of the tenants or be faced with tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

Local governments need to stay out of the everyday conflicts that pit neighbor against neighbor. They must stand back and insist that those in petty conflicts take responsibility for conflict resolution.

Otherwise, politicians do nothing but empower and energize weird little cults like RAID and the University Hill Neighborhood Association. They have the same effect as parents who intervene in the routine conflicts of siblings, escalating the contests by introducing authority and power into the mix. The Oct. 2 meeting, in all its splendor, should serve as the only proof our city leaders need.

Send letters to the editor to: letters@boulderweekly.com. Fax: 303-494-2585. Snail mail: Boulder Weekly Letters, 690 S. Lashley Lane, Boulder, CO 80305. Contact Wayne Laugesen at Wayne@Laugesen.com.

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