2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

SAGA OF SKI LANE A REAL CLIFFHANGER

Published: April 26, 2013, 11:01 am, by Bill Vogrin
Bill Marchant stands next to the guardrail April 23, 2013, which was installed at the end of Ski Lane to prevent a handful of homeowners on the unincorporated road from driving off a 10-foot cliff. Ski Lane used to run due north, down a gentle slope until 2007 when developers bulldozed it, leaving Marchant and his neighbors stranded above with no access. The case has been in court for years.

Bill Marchant stands next to the guardrail April 23, 2013, which was installed at the end of Ski Lane to prevent a handful of homeowners on the unincorporated road from driving off a 10-foot cliff. Ski Lane used to run due north, down a gentle slope until 2007 when developers bulldozed it, leaving Marchant and his neighbors stranded above with no access. The case has been in court for years.

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The story of Ski Lane is a real cliffhanger.

Six years ago, developers bulldozed Ski Lane, turning it into a 10-foot-high cliff and, for a brief time, completely isolating six families living atop the road near Woodmen Road and Powers Boulevard.

Eventually, neighbors’ protests to the city resulted in emergency construction of a 180-degree U-turn deemed a temporary solution to restore access until Ski Lane could be rebuilt at its intersection with Sorpresa Lane. (See photos and maps online with my column at gazette.com.)

This series of photos shows Ski Lane being cut off by developers who bulldozed it, leaving a 10-foot cliff and requiring construction of a 180-degree hairpin curve to allow access.

This series of photos shows Ski Lane being cut off by developers who bulldozed it, leaving a 10-foot cliff and requiring construction of a 180-degree hairpin curve to allow access.

That was 2007. The case has been in court for years. In the meantime, about 200 homes and a park have been built in the nearby Cumbre Vista subdivision, with its new paved streets, curbs, gutters, sewer and water lines abutting the cliff and the gravel hairpin turn leading to Ski Lane.

Twice it seemed the neighbors had won slam-dunk victories in court only to be left with the feeling they lost.

More motions were filed last week. Neither side is happy and it seems this case will never end.

In 2010, it appeared that El Paso County District Court Judge Larry Schwartz had given the neighbors, led by Bill Marchant, a huge victory. Schwartz listened to the claims of Marchant and his neighbors, weighed them against the arguments of developer partners Paul Howard, then-City Councilman Scott Hente, Robert Ormston, plus builders Keller Homes and Campbell Companies, as well as the Woodmen Heights Metropolitan District, which was created by the developers to oversee operation of the master planned community.

Brothers William and Alex Marchant and their sister Jamie toss a ball back and forth over the Ski Lane cliff as a car drives up.

Brothers William and Alex Marchant and their sister Jamie toss a ball back and forth over the Ski Lane cliff as a car drives up.

Schwartz ruled the developers, builders, metro district and even the city “had trespassed on the neighbors’ easements” by obliterating Ski Lane. In the decision, Schwartz ordered the partners to “restore the easements to their pre-destruction condition.”

Neighbors rejoiced at the ruling. But the celebration was premature.

Two years later the parties were again appealing to Schwartz. The cliff remained unchanged, despite his order of restoration. The developer partners were pointing fingers at each other and their previous attorney and seeking clarification of what Schwartz meant by restoration.

Marchant didn’t think the judge was ambiguous.

“We just want our straight shot north for emergency services,” Marchant told me.

042513 Side Streets 3That appears doubtful now. The developer group asked Schwartz if they could move the 1956 Ski Lane easement to avoid destroying newly installed infrastructure and disrupting homeowners in Cumbre Vista.

Marchant and the neighbors want Ski Lane to be rebuilt as was, connecting to Cowpoke Road, re-establishing their historic access route, especially for fire and ambulance services coming out of Black Forest.

In November 2012, Schwartz issued a 24-page ruling that was a harsh indictment of the developer group, builders and the metro district.

Schwartz declared the group “all jointly, severally and individually liable for the trespass and civil conspiracy claimed” by the neighbors.

Ski Lane had no where to go after developers bulldozed the hill in 2007 leaving a 10-foot cliff and no access for residents.

Ski Lane had no where to go after developers bulldozed the hill in 2007 leaving a 10-foot cliff and no access for residents.

And he had tough words for the city staffers who failed to recognize what would happen to Ski Lane when development plans were approved.

“The reality is that they (city staff) approved plans that effectively took property rights from the neighbors,” Schwartz said.

But that’s where the neighbors’ victory ended. The judge declined to order Ski Lane rebuilt as a straight, north-south country road.

In fact, he seemed to blame the neighbors for letting it happen because they didn’t get a court injunction to stop the developers when they bulldozed through the hill that carried Ski Lane out of the neighborhood.

“The neighbors were aware of the nature of the grading at an early stage,” Schwartz said. “They could have brought this case to court and likely have succeeded in stopping the destruction.”

Motorists driving south out of Cumbre Vista encounter the cliff. The newly paved street follows the path where Ski Lane ran for decades.

Motorists driving south out of Cumbre Vista on Gilpin Peak Drive encounter the cliff. The newly paved street follows the path where Ski Lane ran for decades.

He said restoration would “adversely impact the new home buyers” in Cumbre Vista, whom he called innocent in the mess.

Instead, he gave permission to allow the cliff to remain, although rebuilt as a retaining wall “with a natural stone” finish. And he approved a permanent jog in Ski Lane where the U-turn exists and a shifting of traffic to a newly rebuilt road north to protect Cumbre Vista homeowners and infrastructure.

He also ordered the partners to reimburse the neighbors about $20,000 each as compensation for lost property values and damages, although the amount of damages was a fraction of $150,000 each the neighbors had sought. And he declined to award them attorney fees — a sizeable amount.

Ski Lane basic mapBoth sides have appealed, assuring the estimated $2 million spent in legal fees by all sides will climb even higher. Dave Keller of Keller Homes, primary builder at Cumbre Vista, did not return calls seeking comment.

But Marchant, leader of the neighbors, expressed bewilderment at the group’s hollow victory in court.

“The judge gave them the right to move the easement,” Marchant said. “And we’ve still got the cliff. Here we are and nothing is changed.”

The neighbors’ attorney, David Krall, said Schwartz’s ruling was unacceptable.

“We’ve still got this goofy intersection and steep hill,” Krall said. “We still want the original intersection put back.

“It’s absurd. It’s just a mess. I don’t know how anybody ever comes out whole in this. I guess the Court of Appeals is going to tell us that someday.”

Follow this link to a 2008 column on the controversy.

To read a 2010 column, click here.

Ski Lane is seen in images from GoogleEarth. At left is 1999 and at right is 2011 after developers bulldozed the intersection with Sorpresa Lane, leaving Ski Lane residents isoldated. The homes visible on the right are part of Cumbre Vista subdivision.

Ski Lane is seen in images from GoogleEarth. At left is 1999 and at right is 2011 after developers bulldozed the intersection with Sorpresa Lane, leaving Ski Lane residents isolated. The homes visible on the right are part of Cumbre Vista subdivision.

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