When most people think political bullying, the scenic resort town of Estes Park, Colorado, isn't the first place that comes to mind. But to a growing number of residents there, it has become a daily reality.
The most recent trauma to strike the town came after an Oct. 19 fire, when the storied Park Theatre Mall burned to the ground, leaving its owner, Sharon Seeley, without the business her family had run for decades. Seeley had barely begun contemplating how to rebuild her life when a physician, Dr. George Crislip, told town officials and the media that the fire "let loose unknown quantities of asbestos," and that [the urban renewal authority] could "form a public/private partnership to get that place uncontaminated." Crislip even went so far as to publicly proclaim "from a medical standpoint ... we'll have a disaster here" that could result in major health problems in coming years.
The prospects looked frightening until you consider this. Crislip drew such conclusions all without ever conducting any sort of testing, and in total disregard of Seeley's own efforts to have the area analyzed and cleaned up by a professional remediation company.
Crislip's conclusions also contradict those made by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which took the time to survey the area for asbestos contamination in the days following the fire. "We don't believe there is any risk to anyone that's posed by asbestos contamination at this point," Christopher Dann, a CDPHE spokesman told reporters.
Still, despite Crislip's lack of proof and skepticism from state health officials, EPURA chair Wayne Newsom concurred with Crislip's flawed conclusions, proclaiming that the authority would be essential to help Seeley and other impacted business owners recover from the devastating fire, including the alleged contamination. "If people voted to abandon the authority, I think it will be a certain disadvantage to the town," Newsom told the Denver Post. "We want to make the area as attractive as possible."
The timing couldn't be more convenient for town officials, including Newsom, who face an ongoing citizen-led effort to challenge the EPURA's power, taxing abilities, and decision making. The next battle will be a January election brought by a coalition of citizen activists, led by Bill Van Horn, Byron Hall, Jon Nicholas, seeking to dismantle the authority entirely.
But just what is attractive to Newsom? And would any redevelopment plans include Seeley?
While Colorado law prevents local governments from condemning property for economic development purposes (meaning they can't condemn simply to turn the property over to a private developer who could arguably generate more tax revenue through redevelopment), Newsom and his allies would be allowed to condemn under a public health rationale if they can prove that the threat of asbestos contamination is sufficient to warrant forcing Seeley off her property. In the absence of being able to prove such in court, they could still use this threat as a bullying tool to try to obtain the property at pennies on the dollar. And based on their actions thus far, it appears they are using a public health scare for the broader cause of trying to convince voters that continued funding for EPURA is more important than other lagging priorities, including local schools and special districts that rely heavily on property taxes for funding.
The EPURA has long been a source of controversy and litigation. Many voters first became outraged after the town administrator and assistant town administrator helped oppose citizen initiative voting rights on EPURA. Raising tensions further was the revelation that while EPURA has existed for more than a quarter-century, it long ago lost its ability or desire to complete valid public redevelopment projects. It has become a piggy bank for town officials. Of the $50 million in tax revenue EPURA has collected over its lifespan, $32 million has been transferred directly to the Town of Estes Park.
When Van Horn discovered this, he began gathering signatures to abolish the authority. Never one to back down from a fight, the town resisted the petition campaign, claiming that in spite of a state statute providing for the abolishment of urban renewal authorities, taxpayers lacked the authority to dissolve EPURA.
Fortunately, Van Horn prevailed in court. He has many supporters. In September, the Park R-3 School District Board endorsed his initiative effort. School Board Member Mike Miller, who previously served as a Town Trustee, was especially critical in an article that appeared in the Estes Park Trail-Gazette. "They talk about tax revenues, but they never talk about how families (are affected)," he said. "I believe EPURA needs to go away -- soon. People that fight citizens coming forth stating their opinions (and then making them go to court) -- I abhor those people."
Even now, officials continue to bully voters. After losing in court, the Town Board scheduled the public vote over whether EPURA should be dissolved for January 12, 2010. Ballots will be mailed the week of Christmas, when voting is the last thing on most voters' minds. In addition, officials have threatened to challenge election results should voters vote to abolish the authority. This would amount to political suicide, but the Town Board just doesn't seem to care.
"The Town, seeing its unchecked cash cow, EPURA, on the brink of extinction, has embarrassingly engaged in all sorts of trickery and political shenanigans to justify EPURA's continued existence," said Bob Hoban, an attorney for Van Horn and his fellow activists. "Now, to capitalize politically, the town is attempting to use the Estes Park Mall fire as justification for EPURA's continued existence."
While Seeley remains determined to rebuild her property -- and her life -- without the aid of government meddlers, she faces an uphill battle. When government faces its own fight for existence, it will use anything, even taxpayer dollars and despicable political games, to carry on.
Jessica Peck Corry (www.JessicaCorry.com), an attorney and public policy analyst, serves as the director of the Independence Institute's Property Project.