Litigation appears likely in Aspen property dispute
August 4, 2009
ASPEN – The fate of a new Jewish community center on the east side of Aspen will likely end up in a lawsuit because homeowners who live near the proposed facility appear to be blocking the sale of the property with legal threats.
Andrea Jaeger, a former professional tennis player, and now a nun who once operated the Silver Lining Ranch as a respite for terminally ill children with cancer, said the Stillwater Ranch Open Space Homeowners Association won’t back off on the position that its covenants don’t allow for the proposed mixed-used center. As a result, the Jewish Resource Center Chabad of Aspen refused in June to close on the sale of the 14,000-square-foot building.
The Chabad had entered into a contract to buy the Silver Lining Ranch, which would be converted into a community center. The center would house a preschool, a Hebrew school, and a synagogue. It would also host adult education groups, and special events. The organization in May gained approval by the Aspen City Council for a change in use on the property, located at the end of Ute Avenue.
“We were supposed to close already,” Jaeger said, adding the Jewish community center planned to be open this summer. “But they [the HOA] are threatening to sue if the buyer closes.”
Mikaela Rivera, a Denver-based attorney who represents the Stillwater HOA, said Monday that the five homeowners in the association are not threatening litigation, nor are they blocking the sale. They are simply enforcing the HOA convenants, which restrict the use of the property to either a single-family home or a place for ill children, Rivera said.
“The homeowners’ position is that they will enforce the covenants,” she said. “Everyone bought pursuant to these covenants and they have a fiduciary responsibility.”
Recommended Stories For You
But Jaeger, whose nonprofit, Little Star Foundation, owns the building, said the covenants were amended illegally in January by the HOA once the homeowners – some of whom live more than a mile away and across the Stillwater open space – realized what was being planned at the facility.
The amendment added the restriction that only a single-family residence or the former use of a retreat for sick kids were allowed. Jaeger, a non-voting member of the HOA, said she didn’t know about the amendment until well after the Chabad was moving forward with its plans. She added that there had never been any restrictions on who could live there or what the property could be used for.
Jaeger’s Aspen-based attorney, Rick Neiley, said in a July 21 e-mail to Rivera that his client has no choice but to force the issue.
“… This dispute is rapidly coming to a head,” Neiley wrote. “My client has been backed into a corner with no escape route other than litigation … As I’m sure you recognize, this will be an ugly and nasty piece of litigation if it has to go forward.”
Jaeger said she has been seeking a resolution for months with her neighbors.
Her most recent attempt was on Sunday when she attended the annual HOA meeting. Because the issue wasn’t on the agenda, Jaeger presented a motion to have it added. It failed because no one present would second the motion. Jaeger was told to leave the meeting, which was held at the private home of Tom Reagan, the president of the HOA.
“I was escorted to the door,” she said. “We’ve tried everything to have a discussion and resolve the issues but they don’t want to discuss it. It’s just astonishing.”
The association opposes the Jewish center mainly because it will intensify the use in a way that doesn’t fit in with the character of the surrounding neighborhood, particularly on Ute Avenue where traffic would be generated.
Jaeger said not one of the homeowners lives off of Ute Avenue and they all access their properties from Highway 82.
The homeowners also argue that more people – specifically children – using the property will negatively impact the open space and wildlife corridors next to the ranch.
Jaeger said the Jewish center would be no different than the activity generated by the Silver Lining Ranch, where hundreds of children played and laughed in a retreat setting from 1999 to 2006.
Meanwhile, Jaeger’s nonprofit is in financial trouble because of the facility’s sale being delayed. It has cost the foundation more than $750,000 and Jaeger faces additional penalties of $250,000 because the real estate deal hasn’t closed, she said. Jaeger said she has cut 85 percent of the foundation’s programs.
And the Chabad hasn’t been able to offer its community programs either.
“Here we are, two charitable organizations providing community services and we’re being stopped by five homeowners who are unwilling sign a letter saying they won’t sue,” she said, with her voice cracking, unable to hold back the tears.
“They know we don’t have any money and maybe they want the owner to foreclose and then we can’t run our programs,” an emotional Jaeger continued. “And who’s suffering? The children, needlessly … to be punished for a reason that doesn’t even make sense.”
In the 1990s, the property was given to Jaeger by the late Aspen philanthropist Fabi Benedict to operate as a place to help children. Jaeger has since moved the operation to Durango and needs the money from the sale to continue her work with ill children, which has expanded around the globe.
Rabbi Mendel Mintz, who runs the Jewish Resource Center Chabad of Aspen, refrained from commenting too much on the pending legal battle, except to say it’s unfortunate.
“My job is to spread Judaism and build community,” he said last week. “We’re trying to get it done.”
Reagan said last week that the HOA has not threatened litigation and the covenants speak for themselves.
“We’ve always maintained that the homeowner covenants do not allow [that use],” he said. “We haven’t changed our position … the covenants are black and white.”
Neiley suggests otherwise, based on written correspondence between himself and Rivera. Several letters between the two, provided by Jaeger, include legal threats from both sides.
Litigation does appear imminent.
“It depends on where they go from here,” Rivera said. “At this point, it’s sort of unknown where it will go.”
Jaeger said short of an amicable resolution, she said she doesn’t have much of a choice.
“These people have a right to close on the property,” she said. “The City Council approved it and now we are going to have to go to court because they are threatening to sue the buyer. What nonprofit can afford that?
“It’s really disappointing.”