Aspen Jewish community still interested in ranch site
September 4, 2009
ASPEN – An Aspen rabbi said he still has high hopes of moving a Jewish community center into the Silver Lining Ranch, even though he terminated his real estate contract to buy the property.
Litigation threats forced Rabbi Mendel Mintz, who runs the Jewish Resource Center Chabad of Aspen, to last week terminate his contract to buy the 14,000-square-foot building on 6.5 acres at the end of Ute Avenue on the east side of town. The $13.5 million deal was supposed to close in June. Former tennis pro Andrea Jaeger, whose Little Star Foundation owns the ranch property, is embroiled in a nasty legal battle with neighbors threatening a lawsuit if the sale goes through.
“The defendants’ threats of litigation have proven to be an effective impediment to the closing under the contract,” wrote the Chabad’s attorney, Neil Karbank, to Jaeger’s lawyer, Rick Neiley. “Chabad does remain interested in purchasing the property once the litigation, and the attendant risks to Chabad … are resolved …”
Jaeger’s nonprofit organization filed a lawsuit Aug. 24 against the Stillwater Ranch Open Space Association. Little Star claims that neighboring homeowners are blocking the sale of the Silver Lining Ranch to the Chabad, which wants to turn the property into a Jewish community center, a synagogue and Hebrew school.
The legal action asked for an injunction to stop the homeowner association’s threats of litigation if the sale went through. An amendment was filed in Pitkin County District Court Wednesday, asking for a preliminary injunction and a ruling that allows a Jewish center on the site so the real estate sale can be completed.
“Now these individuals are responsible for $13.5 million in damages,” Jaeger said of the homeowner’s association members – Tom Reagan, Charles Bellock, AWL West LLC, Peter Gerson, Julie Gerson and Barbara Fleck. “They didn’t just damage [the potential sale], they destroyed it.”
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The escrow money has been returned to the Chabad, and now Mintz will attempt to wait for the wheels of justice to turn.
“We hope that we can move forward on the property,” Mintz said. “But we need to allow the lawsuit to move forward and be on the sidelines and stay out of it – this is a dispute between the ranch and the homeowner’s association.”
The homeowner’s association has repeatedly argued that a Jewish community center is not allowed under the HOA covenants, which were amended Jan. 20 to restrict the use of the property to either a single-family home or a place for ill children, which was the original use.
The lawsuit claims that the covenants were amended illegally and were done secretly in response to the Chabad moving forward with city approval, and with full knowledge that there was a pending real estate contract between the Little Star Foundation and the Chabad.
Mayor Mick Ireland, who along with the rest of the council voted in May for a change in use on the property to allow a community center, said he agrees with the claims in Little Star’s lawsuit.
“I think the amendment to the covenants was unfair because it was after the fact that Rabbi Mintz went into a contract [to buy the property],” he said. “If [the city] was called as a witness, we would say this use was nearly the same as before.”
Mikaela Rivera, a Denver-based attorney who represents the Stillwater HOA, told the Times last month that the homeowners were not threatening litigation, nor were they blocking the sale; they are simply enforcing the HOA covenants.
“Everyone bought pursuant to these covenants, and they have a fiduciary responsibility,” she said at the time.
Ireland said the homeowner’s association is forcing the city’s hand in allowing the property to become a single-family home, which the council denied in 2007 when Jaeger hoped to sell the ranch to a private party.
“The city would support any nonprofit coming in there,” Ireland said.
The Silver Lining Ranch once operated as a respite for terminally ill children with cancer and was home to the Little Star Foundation, which has expanded to help children and their families around the world.
The dispute has gained national attention, with some news organizations focusing on a possible anti-Semitic motivation by the neighbors.
But Ireland said he doesn’t believe that’s the case.
“It has nothing to do with religion … they just don’t want anything but a single-family home,” he said. “Neighbors don’t want anyone around … it’s about property values.”
Meanwhile, Jaeger’s foundation, now based near Durango, is on the brink of financial ruin. She said she was relying on the sale of the property to continue the foundation’s charitable activities of providing financial and other assistance to children with cancer and their families.
The lawsuit seeks monetary damages for the loss of the sale to Chabad, as well as damages for emotional harm and suffering, and attorney fees.
Jaeger said she still hopes the homeowner’s association will negotiate, but they have been unwilling thus far.
“These people will keep doing this until they like who moves in,” Jaeger said. “Somebody has to make a decision … who is going to want to move in there?
“It’s just astonishing.”