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Stillwater lawsuit could be settled out of court

Allyn Harvey

An attorney who represents two neighbors of the proposed Stillwater affordable housing development said he expects to know within a few weeks whether a lawsuit filed Friday actually ends up going before a judge.

“If something is going to happen with the negotiations, it’s going to happen real soon – in the next week or two,” said J. Bart Johnson, one of the attorneys representing the neighbors. “The details of an agreement may not be worked out by then, but we will know whether we have a deal at all.”

Meanwhile, Lee Novak, the project manager from the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Department, said detailed site plans and construction documents for the 17-unit project are currently being drawn up, and work is expected to begin later this spring.

“We plan to keep going forward with the project until our attorneys tell us to stop or a court orders us to stop,” Novak said.

Johnson represents the plaintiffs in one of two lawsuits filed Friday aiming to halt construction at Stillwater. His clients, Stewart and Linda Resnick and Vernon and Kathleen Friesenhahn, contend the county commissioners overstepped their authority when they granted final approval last month for a multifamily development.

Resnick lives in an 18,000-square-foot house on a 70-acre parcel abutting the proposed Stillwater subdivision, according to court documents and testimony before the county commissioners. The Friesenhahns have a smaller house in the Knollwood subdivision, directly across the Roaring Fork River from the proposed site.

The project is to be built on a four-acre lot that was donated to the county by the late Fritz Benedict, the architect and developer responsible for the original development of Red Mountain and Pitkin Green. Benedict donated the property on the condition it be used for affordable housing.

Last summer, the county commissioners granted conceptual approval for a five-building complex with 13 three-bedroom units and four one-bedroom units. If built, the affordable housing at Stillwater will total roughly 22,000 square feet.

The Resnicks and Friesenhahns fired their first legal shot last August, a month after the commissioners gave the nod to the housing office’s conceptual plan. “We haven’t pushed the suit so far, because we were waiting for final approval. There’s always the chance that they could have denied it,” Johnson said.

The complaint filed Friday is a response to the commissioners’ decision last month to rezone the property and approve the proposal. The complaint says the commissioners gave the application “preferred treatment” because it would result in construction of affordable housing, and that the size of the project conflicts with the character of the surrounding neighborhood.

It also says there is “an apparent conflict of interest” on the part of County Commissioner Shellie Roy, who sits as a voting member on the housing authority’s board of directors as the county liaison.

A similar objection was raised about Commissioner Mick Ireland in the initial complaint last summer, because at that time he was the county’s liaison to the housing authority.

In response, the county asked Linda Donnelly, a Denver attorney who spent nearly 20 years running the state Supreme Court’s attorney discipline office, to consider whether a county commissioner who sits on another agency’s board as a representative from the county has an inherent “conflict of interest” when it comes to matters affecting that agency. She found that no such conflict of interest exists.

Johnson said he has talked with Ireland about the possibility of a negotiated settlement as recently as this week, but he declined to provide any further details. Ireland did not return messages seeking comment.

Neither John Ely, the county attorney, nor Cindy Christensen, a longtime employee at the housing office, can remember a case where neighbors of a proposed affordable housing project actually sued to stop it.

“We always wrangle with the neighborhood, like at Pitkin Iron or with the city of Aspen’s Snyder project, but I can’t remember it ever resulting in an actual lawsuit,” Ely said.

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