August 8, 2022 |
In Saratoga, another land deal teed up largely out of public view for the last several months was forced into the sunshine last week. Hit by questions from a resident who is running for mayor, the sitting lame duck Mayor Creed James talked publicly for the first time about a property scheme that could cost the town nearly a half-million dollars before it’s done.
Town resident Chuck Davis asked about a hush-hush project put into the budget two months ago at $188,000. It could cost much more. The work involves the private property at River Street and Hugus Ditch that has been ground zero of a 15-year legal dispute between Randy Stevens and the town.
Details are few and Mayor James offered no new ones last week. Also silent were the two council members present and the one joining by phone.
Randy Stevens owns 10 lots at 600 River Street between Hugus Ditch on the north and an alley owned by the town on the south. The properties are east of Highway 130. Immediately south of the alley is the Conservation District office and parking lot, which is perched above the alleyway and Stevens’ property at a much higher elevation.
Mayor James blamed town secrecy on litigation. The dirt work at the site and side deals involving surrounding properties are linked to a possible settlement of Stevens’ legal claims against the town. A hearing is scheduled this week in a case where the first paperwork was filed in Carbon County District Court on July 9, 2013. Earlier litigation goes back to at least 2010, two years after Stevens purchased the last two lots of the parcel.
From the available pieces of the puzzle, the town at the very least appears to be entertaining an agreement that includes contouring the steep elevation grade between the conservation district on the south and Stevens’ property on the north. The town would retain its 23-foot-wide alleyway A three-foot wide channel would be built at the bottom of the slope south of the alleyway for drainage.
Grading, contouring and retaining walls are at the heart of the disagreement between Stevens and the Town of Saratoga. Their differences have resulted in claims, counterclaims, court orders and in some cases, defiance of court orders, resulting in more claims and counterclaims.
The details of the proposed work are mapped out on a 95 percent completed construction drawing from T-O Engineers dated June 30, 2022. Davis brought the plan to the council meeting to make his case. Until then, the mayor and council had flown the project under the radar.
The governing body gave T-O Engineers approval to move forward with a grading plan following an executive session on May 3rd. According to the Draft Minutes of the meeting, upon emerging from behind the closed doors of the back room, “Councilman Jon Nelson made a motion to accept T-O Engineers’ grading plan. Councilman Spaulding seconded the motion. Motion carried.” The minutes do not indicate council discussed in public the nature or location of the grading work, the cost or the reason for it.
The cost of the contour work was included in Saratoga’s 2022-23 budget. The line-item entry for the work is listed at $188,000. It’s unclear if the plans shown in T-O Engineers’ construction drawings would exceed that budget amount, and if so, by how much. The T-O Engineers plans include far more than dirt work to contour the hillside.
According to the construction drawings for Project #220235, which are stamped 95 percent complete, the dirt work will extend well beyond the Saratoga-Encampment-Rawlins Conservation District’s current building. The construction map shows a “future building location” due south of the existing site beyond the scope of the contour work.
The site plan raises questions. Will the existing SERC building be torn down and a new one rebuilt? Or will it be picked up and moved to the new location shown on the map? And who is paying for all of this? And how?
Town officials have not addressed these questions publicly. Some estimates of the entire project, including the issue of the SERC building are running as high as $500,000. Mayor Creed James said ongoing litigation prevents the town from talking openly about what is being discussed with Stevens, the Conservation District, T-O Engineers and from the sounds of it, contractors who will perform the work.
Pictured above: File photo of Saratoga Town Hall/Police Department. Photo by Cali O’Hare/Bigfoot 99.
Also unclear is if the $188,000 budget includes the legal fees that will be involved. The governing body flew another motion under the public radar following the May 3rd executive session. Like the earlier one involving T-O Engineers, the second motion also passed without discussion. It approved an engagement letter with Cheyenne law firm Crowley and Fleck. According to its website, the firm’s legal specialties include commercial litigation and construction law.
Another clue to what’s happening dropped in the form of a third cryptic motion. This one came at the June 21st council meeting. Following an executive session, the governing body approved seeking an appraisal of a town-owned lot that adjoins the Conservation District on the east end of the block. As in the earlier motions regarding the secretive deal, the Draft Minutes of the meeting do not indicate that the mayor or council members discussed the reason for having the property appraised. The lot is located at the northwest corner of the intersection of River Street and Cypress Avenue. The appraisal is not to cost more than $2,500, according to the only details about the motion in the minutes.
This latest appraisal of town property follows closely after the one involved in a failed land swap last month, also brokered behind closed doors by the mayor. The issue is the same now as then. Is the town giving up too much value when selling its land assets? And will Town Council approve the deal when all the cards are on the table?
Especially in this case, where the town appears to hold a strong hand in the negotiations.
One of the town’s cards is a court ruling from October 31, 2019. Judge Dawnessa Snyder ruled the Town of Saratoga did not have to pay Stevens for any damages or for infringement of use to his property when the Town built a retaining wall to hold the hillside in place.
Since 2013, the retaining wall has been at the heart of the legal dispute. Its construction has spawned two separate court rulings. Stevens claimed the town caused damages when it built the sheet pile wall. Judge Snyder’s 2019 ruling in the town’s favor was the bookend to a case that was partially decided two years earlier. The first ruling, in 2017, was also in the town’s favor.
On March 23, 2017, Judge Wade Waldrip ruled against Stevens’ complaint that the town had committed trespass and conversion when it built the retaining wall. Conversion is a legal term meaning the goods in question are altered but not taken. The law allows the victim to recover the full value of the property after the conversion if value can be determined. In Stevens’ case, value was not determined.
In the 2017 ruling on cross-motions from the Town and Stevens for Summary Judgement against the other, Judge Waldrip denied Stevens claim of trespass and conversion. However, the judge allowed a separate claim of “inverse condemnation” to be considered at a second trial.
Judge Snyder’s 2019 ruling was that separate trial. Snyder denied Stevens’ claim of inverse condemnation, saying he hadn’t demonstrated any loss or damages. Testimony concerning an appraisal of the Stevens property failed to attach a real value to the parcel or show receipts for damages. Judge Snyder said the plaintiff had not shown that his property had lost any value because of the wall. “Stevens has not proven any damages,” the judge wrote in conclusion.
Davis referred to the opinions last week, suggesting that the town doesn’t owe anything, and certainly not $500,000 to put things right.
Court filings have continued practically non-stop since Judge Snyder filed the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law on November 1, 2019. Over the last three years, a series of motions have been filed, vacated and refiled. The latest was on May 20th, 2022. Another hearing is set for this week.
In the meantime, the Town appears ready to spend unknown amounts of public money to improve private property in hopes of fixing a problem that until now has been unfixable. The town’s lack of communication, combined with the leakiness of a small town, is leading to tough questions. For instance, is the town skirting state law, or at least ethical standards, by not putting any of the work out to bid? Davis asked Mayor James that question last week. The response was a non-denial denial.
While answers from Town Hall are few, the paper chase in court continues tomorrow. The hearing that was rescheduled from May 20th is on the docket for tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. in District Court.