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Housing office sued over Stillwater plans

Allyn Harvey

Two East End property owners have sued to stop an affordable housing project before it clears the county approval process.

Stewart and Lynda Resnick have joined Vernon and Kathleen Friesenhahn in a lawsuit to keep the Aspen/Pitkin County Affordable Housing Office from building 17 homes at Stillwater Ranch, a subdivision about a mile east of downtown Aspen.

The couples, both of whom reside near Stillwater, have named both the county and the housing office in their suit. They are asking the court to negate the county’s conceptual approval for the project.

Their complaint, filed Aug. 24 in Ninth District Court, alleges that County Commissioner Mick Ireland has a conflict of interest stemming from his position as a voting member of the housing authority board.

The Resnicks and Friesenhahns also claim that Ireland’s fellow commissioners “demonstrated an impermissible bias in favor of the project” when they suggested changes to the layout and design of the proposal at public hearings this summer.

In the first hearing on June 28, the plaintiffs’ attorney, J. Bart Johnson, argued the proposal is incompatible with the surrounding area, and that the housing authority is receiving preferred treatment because of the “identity of interest between the board [of county commissioners] and the authority …”

The complaint asks the district court to find that the county exceeded its jurisdiction and/or abused its discretion in granting conceptual approval and issue an order invalidating it.

This is the first such lawsuit in recent history, and perhaps the first ever, according to the housing authority’s Cindy Christensen. In her eight years at the housing office, Christensen has seen her employer sued for raising the rent and refusing to allow an unqualified applicant into affordable housing, but she can’t remember a time when a neighborhood actually sued to stop a project.

Neither can County Attorney John Ely.

“I can’t think of any time that neighbors of a project have been so upset that they sued us in anticipation of an approval,” he said before declining to comment on the specifics of the suit.

The property in question is a 4.18-acre lot across Highway 82 from the Mountain Valley neighborhood. It is part of the Stillwater subdivision created by Fritz and Fabi Benedict in the early 1990s. The Benedicts, now both deceased, donated the lot to the county for affordable housing.

The housing authority is proposing seven buildings containing 13 three-bedroom and four one-bedroom townhomes. The entire project would be 22,000 square feet.

The plan has seen little opposition besides that of the Resnicks, who live in a 17,800-square-foot home near Stillwater, and the Friesenhahns, who live in a large home across the Roaring Fork River in the Knollwood subdivision. The homeowners in the Mountain Valley neighborhood across the highway have expressed concern about the parking and lighting plans but have otherwise had little to say.

Roll International Corporation, which owns two lots in the Stillwater subdivision, is also named as a plaintiff. According to records filed with the state of Delaware, where the company is registered, Roll International’s president and chairman is Stewart Resnick. Resnick also owns the Shadowwood Apartments nearby, where he houses some of his employees and rents out the remaining units.

The plaintiffs’ gripe about Ireland’s purported conflict of interest is not a new one. At the June 28 hearing on Stillwater, Johnson raised issue with the fact that Ireland had already voted in favor of the project as a member of the housing board and thus could not hear the application fairly as a county commissioner.

The county responded by asking Linda Donnelly, a Denver attorney who spent nearly 20 years running the state Supreme Court’s attorney discipline office, to look into Johnson’s concerns. She found that no conflict of interest exists.

Ireland was out of town on vacation and could not be reached for comment. But County Commissioner Leslie Lamont said she was surprised to see that the plaintiffs were still making hay over Ireland’s position on the housing board.

“We, as county commissioners, are expected to represent the county in a number of ways. The intergovernmental agreement that establishes the housing authority says the county and the city will each have one elected official on the housing board,” she said.

Ireland sits on the housing board as the county’s elected representative; the city of Aspen is represented by City Councilman Tom McCabe.

“Besides,” Lamont added, “that’s what people are elected for – to make decisions. I don’t see any conflict of interest for Mick, because he hasn’t got any financial interest in it.”

Johnson simply answered, “We still see that as an issue.”

Lamont was also surprised about the timing of the suit. She noted that the county commissioners left the door open for other proposals at Stillwater.

In addition to requesting plans for a 15-unit complex, instead of the 17 currently proposed, the commissioners also directed the housing office to study developer Tim Semrau’s proposal to build six or eight affordable homes and two free-market homes on the lot.

The commissioners have also said they would sell their interest in Stillwater if the right property for affordable housing could be found elsewhere. But they were all skeptical about that possibility becoming reality.

“I think we were pretty open that there were still some sale and density issues that needed to be considered,” Lamont said.

“They talked a lot about that stuff, but it’s not reflected in their draft resolution. All it does is discuss the project `as proposed,'” Johnson said. “There’s nothing in their final action to reflect any movement in that direction, and we can only act on what they’ve done.”


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