Homeowner letter from Bob Phelps

 

Introduction: After a 20 year hiatus from the Elk Falls Property Owners’ Board I ran for a position on the Board hoping to find a resolution to the dissention I observed between the Board and the Lower Lake Ranch, between the Board and some homeowners, and between homeowner factions. I think the newly elected Board also has similar goals.

 

Acting on a charge from the membership at the 2009 general property owners meeting to try all possible means of amicably resolving the West Gate entrance right of way issue, one of the first actions of the new Board was to form a Lower Lake Ranch Liaison Committee to initiate communication between the Board, homeowners, and the Dunwodys who own the Lower Lake Ranch. The Committee consisted of Bob Mechler, Jane Hulko, and myself – we were selected because the Board felt we could be fair and none of us had any negative history with the Dunwodys. Later Kate Biller was invited to join the Committee and has done so. The Committee has met with the Dunwodys on three occasions and on each occasion the Dunwodys invited several other individuals to attend the meetings – some of whom were not members of the Property Owners’ Association. I’ve also met separately with the Dunwodys on two or three other occasions.

 

This letter is a summary of our progress. By far the most significant issue is access to the subdivision via the West Gate. Much of this letter is devoted to potential alternatives to the West Gate access issue.

 

My history at Elk Falls Ranch: I began coming to Elk Falls Ranch in the early 1950’s when it was owned and run by Elmer and Sally Berg – before any of it was subdivided. My aunt was Mr. Berg’s chief bookkeeper. He sold her a cabin near what is now Circle Drive and helped her modernize it. She was unmarried and frequently brought me, my sister, and my cousins with her to her cabin. At that time, the center and main entrance to all ranch facilities was at the lodge on Elk Creek Road. After the subdivisions, the main entrance remained unchanged – near the junction where Elk Creek, Juniper and Jensen Roads meet. The Bergs were “good neighbors” with the subdivision property owners. The Ranch caretaker, Andy Beye, was always willing to help out property owners and visitors alike. Eventually Ranch ownership was transferred to the Elk Falls Development Company and later still, Andy’s job was taken over by Roger Huser. Roger and the Development Company continued a “good neighbor” policy helping homeowners and visitors alike. Indeed, maintenance of the roads, and sharing of resources was common. Homeowners and the Elk Falls Property Owners’ Association frequently gave an annual gratuity to Andy and later to Roger for their services.

 

Recent changes/observations: Over the last few years the casual, carefree atmosphere around the subdivision has become more intense and a few property owners have taken sides. Much of the dissension is directly or indirectly related to how individual property owners view potential and actual changes being introduced by our neighbor the Lower Lake Ranch owned by Drayton and Vera Dunwody. Some see these changes as good or at least acceptable because they may prevent other more destructive development. They further feel the type of development being introduced by the Lower Lake Ranch is appropriate from a historical context. Others see these changes as destructive because of potential development and/or traffic brought by Lower Lake customers.

 

The Dunwodys have stated that it is their intent to restore much of the “Guest Ranch” functionality that was originally in place when Elk Falls Ranch was owned by the Bergs. To that end, they have done an impressive job of landscaping their property around the lake making it into an attractive site for weddings and other gatherings.

 

Lower Lake Ranch Committee: During the first two Lower Lake Committee meetings, many stories, accusations, exaggerations and obvious falsities were articulated by various individuals – some based on fact, some exaggerations or gossip, hopefully none were malicious. This lack of trust unfortunately influenced our attempts to meet on common ground and discuss common interests at these initial meetings. However the first step in healing is getting to know and trust each other. The Committee initially appeared to be making headway in this regard.

 

Access: It was my hope that the Committee could successfully resolve some smaller, less significant disagreements such as safety and signage as stepping stones to what is probably the key issue – disputed access rights to the subdivision via the West Gate. The Dunwodys claim ownership not only of the roads but also of the right of way across Jensen, and Juniper Roads from Elk Creek Road to where the roads cross into block 1. They may also claim similar rights to a corresponding segment of Elk Creek Road. If homeowners’ access rights are restricted or eliminated across these roads, all homeowners could suffer a significant loss of property value. Homeowners in block 1, and the interior of block 3 (addresses on Upper or Lower Aspen Lanes) are particularly vulnerable!

 

There have been several recent indications that the Dunwodys may be trying to limit access across Juniper and Jensen Roads into the subdivision. The mailbox move from the West Gate was one indicator but since I lack any personal knowledge of the events I will reserve comment at this time. A sentinel event occurred just prior to the November Board meeting. A UPS truck was denied access to the subdivision via Juniper Road. The Board has recently learned about other potentially significant events: It was reported to the Board that the current owners of Lower Lake Ranch notified the Jefferson County bus barn that Jefferson County School busses would no longer be allowed to pick up children nor turn around at the West Gate. So far, to our knowledge, this has not happened. The Board also has been told the Dunwodys have stopped construction trucks from entering the subdivision via the West Gate. Finally, the Board has also had disagreements with the Dunwodys regarding road maintenance and snow plowing which are yet to be resolved. Specifically the Dunwodys have insisted that EFPOA cease maintaining and plowing the disputed access roads which the EFPOA has done for over 40 years, and as they do and have done for all other subdivision roads. The Dunwodys insist that they will maintain and plow the access segments themselves, but at EFPOA’s expense. The Board has asked for a written contract, the same as they require of any other vendor, but so far have not received one.

 

Before Robbie Robinson resigned from the Board, he asked that the next Lower Lake Committee meeting be dedicated to discussing the access issue. We had such a meeting but didn’t reach any agreements. The Committee asked the Dunwodys for more detailed information regarding their requirements for a possible agreement but so far nothing has been forthcoming. The remainder of this letter will discuss the pros and cons of the various options available to the homeowners and the Board.

 

Why is the Board concerned about a potential loss of access across Elk Creek, Juniper, and Jensen Roads?

A second access route to the interior properties (about one-half of all lots) is essential for both convenience and safety. It’s hard enough for emergency vehicles to find, for example, Upper Elk Creek Road via the primary access route through the West Gate; it would be even more difficult if the only access were via the secondary access route using Upper Ranch Drive to Rock Creek Road to Stallion Drive to Circle Drive. The Board is also concerned that property values could be drastically reduced if access is restricted at the West Gate.

 

What access routes are there to the affected properties?

Access route

Pros

Cons

Viability

East gate – via Upper Ranch Drive and Rock Creek Road.

Currently exists. Mileage wise is no further from Circle Drive than the West gate route.

Less direct, less convenient, slower, and less safe than other routes because it is narrow with sharp curves and steep hills.

Most feel this is only a secondary access route except for certain lots in the eastern part of the subdivision.

Elk Road – a platted but non-existent road connecting Elk Creek Road to Circle Drive.

A more direct route to Circle Drive and the center of the subdivision than either the East or West gate routes

Was never constructed and was vacated (taken back) by adjacent homeowners in 1968.

Not only would it be expensive it would be a political and legal nightmare. Overall, a non-viable solution.

West gate – off Elk Creek Drive via Juniper or Jensen Roads.

Currently exists. It is the access route of choice for most interior lot homeowners.

Crosses the Dunwody’s property. Homeowners’ right of way to cross this property is disputed.

This is the only safe, viable, central access route to about ½ of the Elk Falls lots. Assuring continued access is essential.

 

What are the property owners’ rights across the West Gate area?

The homeowners may have a historic right of way or easement of some kind but this is not certain. Arguments in favor include:

Arguments against a historic easement include:

 

Aren’t the roads through the West Gate county roads?

That depends on who you talk to. They are not listed as platted roads like other subdivision roads but they are clearly listed on the block 1 plat map as a 50 foot right of way (across the Berg’s property). There may be more information hidden in Park County records but we are not yet aware of the specifics. The actions of the Development Company and the Bergs suggest they intended for these roads to have the same status as other subdivision roads. The Dunwodys feel otherwise.

 

Why can’t we reach an agreement with the Dunwodys regarding access?

The Dunwodys have been unwilling to negotiate with the Board regarding anything other than a short-term access agreement. The Board believes that only a long-term or perpetual access agreement is acceptable.

 

What are the consequences of a short term (e.g. a five year) access agreement?

A short-term agreement would likely terminate any historic access rights. This would allow the Dunwodys or a future owner of the Lower Lake Ranch property to unilaterally deny access to Elk Falls property owners and we would have no recourse, having relinquished any legal claim to use the roads.

 

What are the alternatives?

 

Finally, where do we go from here?

The EFPOA Board is continuing to investigate options and look for other alternatives that best protect homeowners’ propriety values and access rights. The Board hopes that the Liaison Committee can reach some common ground with the Dunwodys. In the meantime, the Board can only advise homeowners to continue to do what they have always done including accessing their property via Elk Creek, Juniper, and Jensen as appropriate.