Between the Jefferson County School District, the City of Lakewood, and a group of citizens who have lawyered up, roughly $350,000 to $400,000 has been spent on legal fees in the last two years while wrangling over a piece of property worth $500,000. Legal fees for all parties are surely set to keep going up, taxpayers are footing the bill no matter how you look at it, and the citizens’ group still feels like the school district is getting the gold mine while they get the shaft.
Public choice theorists could have a field day with this one because it’s not just two governments fighting over a piece of property. It’s two governments with an overlapping set of constituents.
Itemized out, it breaks down like this: The citizens’ group tells us they’ve spent about $200,000. Open records now tell us the Jefferson County School District has spent over $130,000 on lawyers fees (documented here), and the City of Lakewood about $30,000. Legal fees for the city are surely set to climb by thousands more in the coming days and weeks. Add the two governments together, and you’ve got five law firms and eleven lawyers working the case, some of them at $400/hr.
You may remember this property, this park, when it became controversial as the proposed location for a school for the deaf just a few years ago. Now that idea is scratched, the acreage remains a park, but the ownership is in dispute. The appraisal of $500,000 comes from the JeffCo Assessor’s website, but the JeffCo School District has said in the past they think the property could be worth between $800,000 to $1 million.
So what’s going on here, and what’s at stake?
The citizens bought property next to a park, which they expected to remain a park when they paid a premium to the developer for their homes. “We all bought our properties assuming [the acreage] was a part of Hutchison Park,” says Heather Wenger, a stay-at-home mom who’s been doing pro bono paralegal work for the citizens’ group.
The question boils down to the City of Lakewood’s motives. Knowing the way governments protect their turf and their empires, one naturally would assume Lakewood would want the property. But Wenger says they don’t. “The city, we feel, did have an obligation to pursue its interest in the property. And now we, the taxpayers are now pursuing [Lakewood’s interest in the property] ourselves.” In other words, they’re trying to force Lakewood to own it. So now, the homeowners have to reach deep into their own pockets and schedules to enforce a bargain they thought was already reached with the City back in 1973.
Check out the picture that accompanies this article as part of the evidence. Note that it says “City of Lakewood” open space. That seems straightforward.
JeffCo Schools have spent $130,000 to make sure they end up as the owners. That also seems straightforward. The citizens group is trying to make sure the city ends up as the owner, and the City appears to be spending their attorney money to make sure the school district wins, too. Strange because, if a citizens group wanted to spend money to make sure your government ended up with a half-a-million dollar piece of land, wouldn’t you jump on board with the citizens? That’s not what Lakewood appears to be doing. Or strange in another way: If the City wanted the school district to have the land, why would the school district already be across the six-figures mark in legal fees?
For their part, City of Lakewood spokeswoman Stacie Oulton told CompleteColorado.com, “It’s important to remember that the city’s goal in this case has always been to have the ownership decided based on the law and the relevant facts.”
But the citizens’ group is adamant that Lakewood is trying to dump the property like a hot potato to the school district. “That’s why they [Lakewood attorneys] deposed us, to try and get us thrown off the case. Everything they’re doing legally is to try and disown the property,” Wenger says.
Still, the notion of which government owns the property goes a little beyond the simple notion of maintaining neighborhood property values. Theoretically, if the school district owns the land, they can sell it, just like an individual would decide to sell his own car, or her own piece of land. But if the city owns it, they can only sell it after a vote of the city council, or after a vote of the people. In other words, the city can’t sell it until some kind of “accountability” action.
An email (provided to me by the citizens’ group) seems to intimate this notion pretty clearly. Written by a City of Lakewood employee, the email reads, “Rezoning the parcel straight to 2R would allow the District [JeffCo Schools] to sell the site for housing in the future.” The memo also states that the zoning (2011 at the time) “restricts the use of the site to school or park. The same restrictions should apply in future re-zonings.” Not only does this strongly convey the idea the city is the owner, it strongly implies the park should stay a park. But not a 4-story condo low rise.
We’ve only just begun this Alice in Wonderland adventure. More to come.