Mulhall column: Blue rocks and earth tones |

Mulhall column: Blue rocks and earth tones

Mitch Mulhall

Recently, I’ve been reading about the Garfield County commissioners’ focus on Ascendigo, a proposed facility for the development of autistic spectrum people. From what I read, the county’s in the middle of a real standoff between a landowner and its neighbors.

I once served on a homeowners’ association board. That experience was among the most eye-opening disappointments of my adult life. That board — without my support — voted to force a neighbor to paint his sky-blue metal roof forest green because “blue is not an earth tone,” even though our neighbor produced a sky-colored rock from a nearby Crystal River gravel bar to support blue’s earth tone bona fides.

That’s not exactly what’s going on in Missouri Heights, but it’s similar groundwork: Sometimes the notion you can do what you want with your land doesn’t extend beyond an idea; sometimes the latitude to do what you want on your property is not legally protected; sometimes two opposing parties can make the same claim.

Ascendigo wants to build a facility to help autistic people. Adjacent property owners claim Ascendigo’s presence will change some of what they enjoy about their property. If Garfield County supports Ascendigo’s plans, Missouri Heights homeowners may say their property rights were not legally protected. If the county declines support, Ascendigo could say the same.

What a dilemma!

An approach the county could take would be to back the side more likely to sue, by virtue of disposition or legal standing. Fortunately, Garfield County commissioners aren’t wobbly, so this calculus won’t factor.

What will?

Traffic, for one. Missouri Heights residents have formed a nonprofit called “Keep Missouri Heights Rural” (KMHR),” and by “rural,” I think they mean relatively traffic-free, or more like a private drive than a county road.

In question is the McDowell Engineering Report’s offset between traffic generated by some number (15 or 20) of home sites and Ascendigo’s proposed facility. That difference amounts to something like enough traffic to re-create the final scene in Field of Dreams, or so KMHR’s narrative goes.

Maybe 15 more homes, with all the construction and school buses and FedEx and UPS and US Mail traffic that come with, would not unravel the rural fabric of Missouri Heights in any meaningful way, but the traffic caused by Ascendigo would.

It’s not an argument I’d make a stand on.

Another argument against Ascendigo is that the proposed improvements are not an “educational facility.”

This is unhelpful sophistry.

Any parent of a special needs child can attest that however noble the spirit of numerous federal regulations, the “free and appropriate education” mandate gets a lot of mileage out of the word “appropriate.”

A special needs child may diverge from normal childhood development long before preschool. Federal regulations require public schools meet the individual education needs of such children while providing the education most children need for all the usual post-high-school options. It’s not a simple proposition.

Where most students graduate from high school with a diploma, which connotes quantifiable academic achievement, others, some along the autistic spectrum, graduate with a certificate of attendance, or something like it. You can spend a lot of time contemplating whether that’s “appropriate.”

For a special needs child, high school graduation (if they’re able to go to public school) just marks the end of attending an “educational facility.” For some, the opportunity to achieve any form of independence, or even to seek happiness, requires further development.

Perhaps Ascendigo could broaden its acceptance among citizens of Eagle, Pitkin and Garfield counties by declining to engage in the “rural” traffic argument altogether and showing instead how its programs contribute an “appropriate” education — a needed, valuable service — to autistic spectrum people.

That’d be all it would take, really, though it probably wouldn’t do much to change the minds of some nearby homeowners.

Still, underscoring what Ascendigo does for the least among us is a bit like holding up a blue rock as proof that blue is an earth tone.

What you do with truth is up to you.

Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at

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