Code enforcement battle lines drawn next to Mueller State Park
~ by Rick Langenberg ~
Teller County property owner Rebecca Pruitt is a fighter and survivor.
A former New Jersey resident with a definite “Jersey” attitude, she battled and survived Hurricane Sandy; overcame a tough economic plight and marriage; struggled with bouts of homelessness in Colorado; and even dealt with helping a very ill son, suffering from a rare, arthritic and skin-related illness.
But the Habitat for Humanity volunteer coordinator says she never expected the biggest survival fight of them all: Teller County code enforcement politics.
“They came after me with their guns drawn,” said Pruitt, who owns close to 40 acres, bordering Hwy. 67, just south of Muller State Park. “They were not even (acting) human. There was no emphathy…But they picked the wrong person to fight with.”
For the last year and half, she has been engaged in a rather bizarre code enforcement battle with county officials regarding camping violations, the construction of a small, partial bear-proof chicken coop structure, the storage of construction material on her property and other collectables and sewer violations. Ironically, her spread offers one of the more unobstructed views of the back side of Pikes Peak, and offers visitors a rigorous hike in scaling a cliff to reach her chicken coop.
In a larger sense, Pruitt says her battle is more than just a fight against her; it’s a fight for the real rural soul and character of Teller County. “They say I am not a real farmer,” blasted Pruitt. “I have the right to try to be a farmer.” “They want to turn this place into the next Aspen,” added the Teller resident, who came to the area in late 2015 partially for health reasons for her son.
She says other neighbors in her area also have been targeted by county officials. Pruitt wonders who is next in the county’s code enforcement campaign. But more importantly, she contends county officials are denying her rights as an agricultural property owner. She raises chickens, hogs, soy sheep and a variety of livestock, and has plans for growing certain food items on her land.
Not an accurate picture
County officials, though, paint a much different picture and contend that this is another extreme example of someone moving into the area, who just didn’t abide by proper codes and started building and camping without seeking permission “This case is going through the proper process and channels,” said Teller County Commissioner Marc Dettenrieder.
In his own take on the matter, he is confident that Pruitt’s situation is being fairly handled by the courts and by the county’s community development services, which oversees building and code complaints.
County officials definitely have the hand of the law on their side.
After failing to get Pruitt to comply following many reported complaints, they took her to court and won a default decision in the District Court last May, issued by Judge Theresa Cisneros. The case is currently under more review. Pruitt has asked for reconsideration, admitting she wasn’t aware of the way defendants are served in Colorado, compared to what she was used to in New Jersey. Pruitt represented herself in the court fight. She also has questioned several other aspects of the judge’s decision.
She also plans to appeal the verdict before the state appeals court, if she isn’t successful at the local level. And if all else fails, Pruitt is planning federal action, and wants to pursue the continued construction of her chicken coop. Pruitt says her constitutional rights are clearly being violated, and that if individuals are homeless, they can camp on their property, in an effort to obtain temporary relief. County regulations only allow leeway if a person is in the process of building a home on their property, according to officials.
This is one point that is in dispute between both sides.
In a friend of the court filing made by the Department of Justice against the city of Boise, Idaho for anti-camping violations in the summer of 2015, attorneys for the feds maintained that their city violated the U.S. constitution with their regulations by making criminals out of people who are just struggling to find a place to sleep. “If the court finds that it is impossible for homeless individuals to secure shelter space on some night because no beds are available, no shelter meets their disability needs, or they have exceeded the maximum stay limitations, the court should also find that enforcement of the (anti-camping) ordinances under those circumstances criminalized the status of being homeless and violates the Eight Amendment of the Constitution,” stated Sharon Brett, an attorney for the Department of Justice, in a detailed filing made in August 2015.
This stand isn’t recognized by Teller County, but if this type of action is pursued by the federal government, then Pruitt’s situation could have big implications for Teller County. “There are many influential people monitoring my situation,” said the Teller resident. Homelessness is an issue that officials don’t want to talk about much in Teller County and the Pikes Peak region, especially with the sights of more individuals panhandling, and many teens not having a regular place to sleep. Studies of southern Teller indicate a huge problem with homelessness, with these individuals not exhibiting the typical stereotypes of bums or street people.
The push for more affordable housing is also an issue that has commanded much attention. Habitat for Humanity of Teller County has taken a huge stand in trying to foster more affordable housing and assisting those who work in the community. Pruitt actually disagrees that she violated the county’s camping violations because she says she owns two parcels, and so would be permitted technically more than the 60-days limit, according to her interpretation of the rules. But she attributes the fact that she camped on her property for an extended period due to not having a job or steady income, when she first moved to the area. “I went through a rough time,” she admitted. “I didn’t have any place to go.”
Pruitt compares the camping excursion of herself and her son, who suffers from a rare, difficult arthritic and skin-related disease, to a Boy Scout-type tent adventure on their own property. In addition, Pruitt finds the county’s complaint-driven code enforcement action unconstitutional and unfair. She questions the many so-called violations made against her, and whether they originated from the county planner, Dan Williams. “Who was I hurting?” questioned Pruitt. Plus, she believes the county has invested thousands of dollars in their fight against her.
Williams didn’t respond to TMJ News questions about the property owner’s situation, and referred all matters to Lynda Morgan, director of the Teller’s community development services. Morgan, in an e-mail, maintained that the county tried repeatedly to work with Pruitt for over a year and sent her various letters and had meetings with her. Finally they took her to court, citing her for camping in excess of 60 days (per calendar year), failure to obtain a state access permit and a Teller County driveway permit, construction of a structure without a building permit, failure to comply with on-site wastewater treatment system regulations and violation of the 50-foot setback rules in the agricultural zone. Morgan contended that no compliance occurred regarding these issues.
In addition, Morgan noted that the property in question is located along a part of Hwy. 67, “designated as a scenic and wildlife viewing roadway.” The Teller property owner, though, definitely has her supporters. Pruitt is involved with the local Habitat group and the St. David’s Episcopal Church in Woodland Park. “I am very community-minded,” blasted Pruitt, who also contends she has supported the issue of combating homelessness. “There was just no level of compromise (with county officials).” “This is my ‘too good for a chicken coop’ structure,” quipped Pruitt, when showing her targeted violated habitat of less than 150 square-feet to TMJ journalists recently. But during those visits, she also displays a pistol that is brandished for unwelcome county officials. The base of her property is also adorned with an American flag and a symbol of liberty.
The area where her property is located has almost become a big battleground area for code enforcement woes. Despite the scenic designation of this area, many properties along the roadway appear to be in violation of trash and junk rules, and the aesthetic guidelines established by the county.
A touchy subject
However, county officials and political observers suggest that a growing push has occurred for more enforcement of code rules rather than less. Dettenrieder said he strongly supports the complaint-driven philosophy of the county’s planning and code enforcement officials. “That is how most counties like Teller handle code enforcement. That is the fairest way to do it. I fully support what we are doing,” said Dettenrieder
Similar sentiments are echoed by Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell. He admits he is vaguely familiar with Pruitt’s situation, although doesn’t know the specific details. The sheriff’s office mainly handles trash and rubbish complaints, and is often sent into the front-lines of enforcing the rules and to grapple with sensitive situations. The sheriff said their officers prefer to educate property owners rather than to cite them.
On a county-wide basis, Mikesell believes that Teller’s code enforcement crackdown has improved. “We used to get complaints from certain areas of the county,” said the sheriff, who has been involved with the local sheriff’s agency for nearly 20 years. “That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.”
Still, he admits code enforcement is a touchy subject in Teller County. “What I found is that there are definitely different views as to what constitutes ‘collectable items,’” quipped the sheriff.
As the old adage goes, one person’s junk may be viewed as another person’s treasure. This was a common theme in the past, as some property owners in rural Teller used to threaten county officials and even journalists about items stored on their lands. This has always become a controversial issue politically. Former Teller County Commissioner Jerry Bergeman often sided with residents who tried to pursue building projects on their properties and even store junk vehicles there, and was quite vocal about this subject during commissioner meetings.
Parts of the county used to be regarded as staunch, no trespassing zones, especially sections of Indian Creek and Florissant/Divide. In recent years, the county’s code enforcement woes are more wide-spread and not focused on any specific subdivision, say officials. According to Morgan, the county currently handles about 75 to 80 complaints a year from all unincorporated areas of Teller.
Like the sheriff, the county’s community of development services director hasn’t depicted overall trends in complaint sources. “Types of complaints received include building, zoning and environmental health with building and zoning and environmental health with the majority dealing with building and zoning type violations. The county also receives complaints about violations of the junk and rubbish ordinance,” she stated in an e-mail.
According to Morgan, the biggest misconception deals with individuals who aren’t aware that certain codes are in place, prior to pursuing certain projects. She also says the county does try to work with individuals, who encounter rough times. “Our approach continues to be that when a complaint is received and it is determined that a violation may exist, the property owner is notified of the possible violation and is requested to contact the appropriate department within a specific period of time to discuss the matter and, if it is determined that a violation exists, there is a discussion on ways to achieve compliance and find resolution,” said Morgan in an e-mail.
“It is the county’s strong preference to resolve these types of violations informally through compliance by the property owners and will consider extenuating circumstances and extensions of time if the property owner is making a good faith effort to bring the property into compliance.”