Conspiracy theories dog Pitco mobile home park
As she deliberates the fate of a midvalley Hispanic woman, Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely apparently will not consider the conspiracy and racism charges that were raised in her courtroom last Wednesday.
The judge spent four hours hearing two sides to what, on the surface, appears to be a simple eviction case. Richard Downey, managing partner of the Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park Ltd., is attempting to evict Maria Villigua from the trailer park for violating the provision in her lease that bans dogs.
But after a long afternoon in court it was clear there was nothing simple about the case, so the judge took everything under advisement and promised a ruling by the middle of this week.
Downey and his attorney, Dennis Green, presented evidence that Villigua had initialed the section of the lease that bans dogs when she moved into the park about five and a half years ago.
Downey testified that, after observing a dog at her house last October, he posted a “notice to correct” on Villigua’s door and handed a copy of the notice to her roommate. After the violation went uncorrected for several months, he said he decided to evict her.
But Villigua’s defense attorney, Jeannette Consor, asserted Downey’s reason for evicting her client had nothing to do with the dog. And to prove it, she called on a former manager of the trailer park, who testified that Downey was harder on Hispanic residents than longtime, mostly white residents.
“He asked me to be more aggressive on rule enforcement with the Hispanic residents than with the people who had been living there a long time, most of whom were white,” said Paul Mayer, a former park manager who was fired after about a year on the job.
Consor attempted to show that Downey’s motivation for evicting Villigua and others over the years has been to buy their trailers, which gives him more and more control over the park’s homeowners’ association.
That control, Consor maintained, would allow Downey to eventually close the trailer park down, evict the remaining tenants and either sell the land or develop it for sale on the free market.
“There is a much more cynical reason why Mr. Downey is evicting people from these units. He brings them up for eviction and buys their units. He’s trying to sell the mobile home park,” she said. “It’s retaliatory eviction.”
Throw the dog in the river
The Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park is located next to the Roaring Fork River, on a parcel of land that is as close to being in Basalt as possible without actually being in the town limits. The 52 mobile homes that comprise the park are located just off Highway 82 between the Basalt post office and the Texaco gas station, on an island of land that is considered unincorporated Pitkin County.
The site has been used for mobile homes and trailers since the mid-1960s, according to Downey’s testimony. He and his partners have owned the park since 1982.
Trailer dwellers face a unique combination of rent and ownership responsibilities. At most trailer parks around the country, residents own the trailer but not the land. Typically, they will rent a site for their trailer that comes with sewer, water and electrical hookups.
Downey explained to the court that in the late 1980s, the park stopped allowing new tenants to bring in dogs.
“We had a lot of complaints over the years about barking dogs, from people who were kept awake by the dogs,” he said.
That rule was included in the park’s covenants, with the agreement of the homeowners’ association, in 1995, shortly before Villigua moved in. Downey testified, and Villigua later confirmed, that he provided a translator at the time she was signing the lease and reviewing the rules.
“I think we bend over backwards for our Hispanic tenants – over 80 percent of our tenants are Hispanic,” Downey said after the hearing. In addition to providing translators as a matter of course since 1992, Downey said all of the documents at the park are currently being translated into Spanish.
In addition to the notice that was posted on Villigua’s door last October, Downey said the park manager distributed a letter to park residents last January reminding them of the rules. It also explained the park policy regarding some of the more frequent rule violations. The letter was written in English on one side and Spanish on the other.
In mid-January, a neighbor of Villigua’s signed a complaint that said her son and daughter were bitten by Villigua’s dog. Downey said he and the park manager agreed to evict Villigua after learning of the biting incident.
The children’s mother said in court that the bites occurred after her kids tried to take a bone away from the dog. She also testified that the children were not hurt badly. She said she signed a complaint only after the manager asked her to.
Villigua testified she never received the notice to correct in October or the letter in January. Using a translator, she told Judge Fernandez-Ely that the first she heard of a problem with the dog was on Feb. 4, when she stopped by the park office to make sure she had paid the right amount of rent.
Villigua testified that the park manager, who wasn’t present at Wednesday’s hearing, told her she was being evicted and that she needed to get rid of the dog right away – even if that meant throwing it in the river.
Villigua first testified she never knew about the dog ban, in spite of the fact that she had gone over the lease and park rules with a translator and signed a form saying she understood everything.
Villigua’s testimony crumbled, however, when her attorney asked why she got the dog.
Through a translator, Villigua explained that she had seen dogs around the park lately. “She said she got a dog because she thought the rules had changed, that’s why there were dogs all around,” the translator said.
Villigua was unable to explain to Green, the trailer park’s attorney, how she could say she never knew about the ban in one breath and then say she thought the rules had changed in the next.
Much of Villigua’s case had little to do with the dog, actually.
Her attorney, Consor, began her presentation with documents that appeared to implicate Downey and the park ownership in a plot to force the residents out of the trailer park. She alleged that Downey has evicted people over the years and bought their trailers in an attempt to gain even more control over the trailer court than he already had as owner of the land it sits on.
She presented a June 1996 ordinance passed by the Pitkin County Board of Commissioners that rezoned the property to MHP (Mobile Home Park) and an affordable housing program agreement that limits the sale of the trailers to people who qualify under category-three income limits set by the housing office. Consor said Downey was violating the affordable housing rules because he didn’t qualify under category-three income guidelines.
“He was granted mobile home park zoning with the idea that it would be owner-occupied,” Consor said.
In her closing arguments, Consor said “it was clear” that Downey planned to sell or develop the land and that the eviction of her client was part of that plan. Her suspicions were reiterated, both on and off the stand, by several witnesses from the trailer park.
Downey admitted in court that he owns nine trailers and the Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park Ltd. owns another seven. But he pointed out that the 1996 ordinance and affordable housing agreement weren’t actually recorded by the county until Feb. 28, 2001, so they haven’t been in effect for the last five years.
“All the trailers were acquired before the ordinance was recorded,” he said.
“Mr. Downey has no intention of owning this unit. He’s simply trying to evict a tenant for violation of the rules,” Green said.
Nevertheless, Judge Fernandez-Ely indicated at the end of the hearing that she was likely to rule in favor of Villigua. She also made it clear that her ruling wasn’t going to rest on Consor’s and the residents’ conspiracy theories.
Fernandez-Ely noted that the dog rules had been loosely enforced over the years, which could be considered a waiver from those rules.
She also wondered why it took three months for park management to act on the initial notice to correct. And she pointed out that one of the documents that was purportedly served on Villigua lacked a signature identifying the person who actually served the papers.
And the judge was bothered by the fact that it appeared Villigua had been singled out from other dog owners who were in violation of the rules. One resident of the park admitted on the stand she lives with 11 dogs in a trailer next to the office.
“It does seem the defendant was singled out differently than everyone else,” Fernandez-Ely said. “They all got letters saying we’re going to [start enforcing the rules], but she gets the actual notice of eviction.”
Return to The Aspen Times or AspenAlive.com
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
Amid the pre-Thanksgiving gloom of grim pandemic news here in Aspen, across Colorado and the mountain west came a small but significant dose of hope in the unlikely form of an Aspen Music Festival and School announcement.