Overnight campers, ‘hatchet man’ being booted from Intercept Lot outside Aspen
March 9, 2018
Officials plan to "roust" a group of people living in their cars at the Intercept Lot within the next two weeks, Aspen's parking director told valley transportation officials this week.
The effort comes in response to complaints from people who park at the lot to access Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses that became more pronounced after a report last month about a 35-year-old man brandishing a hatchet at the parking lot for the second time in a year and a half, parking director Mitch Osur said.
"It's pretty crazy out there," Osur said Thursday at a meeting of the Elected Officials Transportation Committee in Snowmass Village.
Osur also said the Colorado Department of Transportation could negate the city's agreement to lease the parking lot if it is not being utilized for transportation-related uses.
"CDOT can take away the lease if we allow people to live there," he said.
The plan is to threaten to tow the cars of the people living at the park-and-ride lot at the intersection of Highway 82 and Brush Creek Road within 48 hours, he said. That strategy — which came from an Aspen police officer familiar with members of the area's transient community — likely will provoke the rest of the Intercept Lot residents to leave, Osur said.
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"We'll roust two a day," he said, adding that approximately 10 cars routinely park overnight at the lot. "The feeling is that once we start, the rest will move."
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, however, took issue with Osur's use of the word "roust."
"That's not a word I would use," he said Friday. "I would say we're gonna go talk to them and tell them what the situation is and ask if they would relocate. We're going to start with a dialogue."
The sheriff also said threats of towing or booting cars may not materialize either.
"I don't know that I'm going to go there," DiSalvo said. "We're going to see if we can appeal to them."
The situation at the Intercept Lot — which has been tolerated by the Sheriff's Office for years partially because the county doesn't have an ordinance forbidding sleeping overnight in a car — came to a head about a month ago. That's when deputies arrested a local man, Justin Schaaf, for allegedly threatening two other men living at the parking lot with a hatchet for the second time in a year and a half.
"It's been pretty unimpactful up until the 'hatchet man,'" DiSalvo said. "I think that raised a lot of eyebrows."
In a story from November 2016, Schaaf told The Aspen Times he'd been living at the Intercept Lot on and off for the past six years. The Aspen police report detailing his arrest last month listed his address as the Intercept Lot.
In addition, the two men he threatened with the hatchet appeared in Pitkin County District Court after Schaaf's arrest and urged a judge to go easy on their friend and fellow parking lot resident.
"We all live at the Intercept Lot and try to co-exist," one of the men told the judge.
Cars can park at the Intercept Lot for no more than 24 hours, according to posted signs.
DiSalvo said his deputies have remained lenient with those who camp at the Intercept Lot partially because of the county's lack of an ordinance prohibiting sleeping in a car by the side of the road or in a parking lot in unincorporated areas. The other reason is compassion for people who are homeless and living out of their cars, he said.
Lately, however, things have changed at the lot, DiSalvo said.
"I think people are taking more advantage of it than before," he said. "The people out there are well aware no one's pushing them and it's OK to stay there because no one's told them different."
A homeless camp underneath a bridge over the Roaring Fork River near the Intercept Lot also is popular in the summer months, according to law enforcement sources.
Osur said Friday that a RFTA official complained to him about having to empty portable bathrooms at the lot more often because of use by residents, as well as having to frequently dispose of trash deposited by residents.
After the article about Schaaf wielding the hatchet last month, Osur said he received about 10 calls from citizens saying they wouldn't use the Intercept Lot park-and-ride services until the problem with the residents was fixed. None reported having negative or offensive interactions with the residents, he said.
"(The residents) have been pretty good," Osur said. "To be honest, I think that (hatchet man) article put it (out there) and people said, 'Maybe I should be scared.'"
Still, he told elected officials he's heard rumors going around that all people have to do is buy a "$500 junker" and they can live for free at the Intercept Lot. He also reported hearing stories about the residents fighting over parking spaces closest to RFTA infrastructure so they piggyback the WiFi and play video games on their computers.
On Thursday, Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper wondered where the Interept Lot residents will go once they've been kicked out.
While Osur suggested "the Wal-Mart parking lot," Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said the county and city need to figure out a safe place to go for people who live in their cars.
"I'm not sure we can rely on them going to the Wal-Mart parking lot," he said, adding that Pitkin County will have mental-health experts available when the operation to kick out the residents begins. Peacock said he plans to engage officials from Aspen's homeless shelter in the process as well.
However, Peacock said a solution to the problem has not been worked out, other than continuing the policy of "moving folks around."
DiSalvo said he's looking for the same thing.
"I'd like to hear a creative solution from somebody," he said. "I don't have one."
Snowmass Village Town Councilman Bob Sirkus said Thursday he was frustrated at the lack of a solution.
Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron suggested confining those who want to live at the Intercept Lot to the dirt portion of the lot at the back end and installing a portable bathroom for them to use.
Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards, however, said that creating a spot where people can work in Aspen for the summer and live for free at the Intercept Lot will attract "hundreds of people."
That idea prompted city of Aspen Transportation Director John Kruger to bring up the city's lease of the lot from CDOT.
"You have to be real careful with the CDOT lease," he said. "You could lose it all."
Tracy Trulove, a CDOT spokesperson, said Friday that the agency has had to deal with similar situations in Mesa County, where action was taken to clear out people camping in lots that forbid overnight parking. However, she said CDOT would be unlikely to unilaterally yank the city's lease of the Intercept Lot without first allowing changes to be made.
"We try to be very collaborative," Trulove said. "We would give them an opportunity to remedy the situation."