Aspen ranch owner sues neighbors in dispute over property sale
A nasty neighborly dispute that has gained national attention is now in Pitkin County District Court.
The Little Star Foundation, a nonprofit organization run by former tennis pro Andrea Jaeger, filed a lawsuit Monday against the Stillwater Ranch Open Space Association. In the suit, the Little Star foundation claims that neighboring homeowners are blocking the sale of the Silver Lining Ranch – owned by the foundation – to a group who wants to turn the property into a Jewish community center.
The legal action asks for an injunction to stop the homeowner association’s threats of litigation if the sale of the Silver Lining Ranch to the Jewish Resource Center Chabad of Aspen goes through.
The 14,000-square-foot building sits on 6.5 acres, located off of Ute Avenue, and once operated as a respite for terminally-ill children with cancer. Since last September, Rabbi Mendel Mintz and the Chabad have been under contract to buy the facility for $13.5 million. The deal was scheduled to close June 3.
The property was planned to be converted into a Jewish community center that would house a preschool, a Hebrew school and a synagogue. The organization in May gained approval by the Aspen City Council for a change in use on the property.
But because of legal threats levied by homeowners who live on the other side of the open space, the Chabad refused to close on the sale.
“Defendants intentionally used threats of litigation to wrongfully and improperly interfere with plaintiff’s contract for the sale of lot 5 to Chabad,” the lawsuit states.
The stand-off has caused Jaeger, 44 – now a nun – serious financial distress to herself and the foundation, which has expanded to serve terminally-ill children around the world.
“… Plaintiff will suffer irreparable injury, including the likely default under existing loans which would threaten the viability of plaintiff and its ability to carry on its charitable activities of providing financial and other assistance to children with cancer and their families,” the lawsuit states. “The issuance of a preliminary and permanent injunction is necessary to grant emergency relief to plaintiff to prevent the injury and damages described herein and to avoid the loss of valuable contract rights and the imminent financial collapse of plaintiff’s charitable organization.”
The complaint, filed by Aspen-based attorney Rick Neiley, demands a jury trial, and asks the court for nine claims of relief, including remedies for Jaeger’s financial and emotional damages. It names not only the homeowners association but its members – Tom Reagan, Charles Bellock, AWL West LLC, Peter Gerson, Julie Gerson and Barbara Fleck.
The defendants have repeatedly argued that a Jewish community center is not allowed under the HOA covenants, which were amended Jan. 20 to restrict the use of the property to either a single-family home or a place for ill children.
At the center of Jaeger’s argument is that the covenants were amended illegally and were done secretly in response to the Chabad moving forward with city approval, and with full knowledge that there was a pending real estate contract between the Little Star Foundation and the Chabad.
The lawsuit claims that the amendment was adopted without all members of the HOA present at the meeting, which was not noticed.
The suit also claims that the amendment did not comply with the procedural requisites set forth in the association’s bylaws, and was not approved by the required number of lot owners in the subdivision.
The complaint cites the Colorado Common Interest Ownership Act (CCIOA), which prohibits the adoption of any amendment that changes the uses to which a property is restricted in the absence of a vote or agreement without at least a 67 percent affirmative vote by the members.
Bellock, Reagan and the Gersons reportedly executed the amendment.
“The 2009 amendment is invalid, ineffective, groundless and spurious, and constitutes a cloud on the title to the plaintiff’s real property,” the complaint states. “The defendants have failed to comply with the requirements of CCIOA by among other things, failing to adopt responsible governance procedures, refusing to allow the plaintiff to be represented by counsel at association meetings, failure to provide proper notice of the meetings, failure to make the books and records of the association readily available to the plaintiff and failing to provide an alternative dispute resolution procedure to the plaintiff.”
Jaeger said she has been attempting to come to a resolution for months with her neighbors.
Her most recent attempt was Aug. 2 when she attended the annual HOA meeting. Because the issue wasn’t on the agenda, Jaeger presented a motion to have it added. It failed because no one present would second the motion. Jaeger, a non-voting member, was told to leave the meeting, which was held at the private home of Reagan, the president of the HOA.
The association publicly opposed the Jewish center during the city’s public hearings held this past spring mainly because it will intensify the use in a way that doesn’t fit in with the character of the surrounding neighborhood, particularly on Ute Avenue where traffic would be generated.
However, all of the homeowners opposed to the Jewish Center access their properties from Highway 82.
The lawsuit also claims the defendants have intentionally interfered with a contract; breached the association’s protective covenants that have existed since in the 1990s; slandered the title of the Little Star Foundation’s property; breached the association’s contract of operating with good faith and fair dealing and have breached their fiduciary duties to the association.
Jaeger’s dispute with her neighbors has gained national attention – articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Denver Post and coming later this week, the Boston Globe. Last Tuesday, the saga was aired on NBC Nightly News.
According to this past Sunday’s Denver Post article, one of the defendants is New Yorker Jeffrey Verschleiser, a mortgage trader who recently moved from Bear Stearns to Goldman Sachs Group. Bellock is a Boulder-based CEO of Community Development Group, a company that is currently developing large housing tracts in the Erie area; Reagan is a private equity broker and the driving force behind a controversial expansion of a private school in Aspen; the Gersons and Fleck are retirees, according to the Denver Post.
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