Homeowners in the North Forty neighborhood are “regrouping” in their effort to challenge a potential Colorado Mountain College expansion after the college threatened legal action over what it alleged are defamatory statements.
The homeowners had planned a messaging campaign to coincide with the Halloween festivities that bring hundreds, if not thousands, of guests from around the valley to the neighborhood due to its family-friendly and self-contained nature. The campaign was to include homeowners handing out a flier with around two dozen talking points pushing back on concepts the college has floated to build student housing and expand academics on the Aspen campus, which is next door to the North Forty, an affordable-housing neighborhood.
The flier was never distributed, however, though a copy did make its way to the college’s executive offices in Glenwood Springs shortly before Halloween. Upon receipt, the college’s general counsel sent the North Forty homeowners association a letter calling the flier defamatory and warning that CMC would consider legal action if it was released.
“Please be advised that many of the statements in the flier are misleading, others are false, and the intentional distribution of these false statements will damage the reputation of Colorado Mountain College,” says the two-paragraph letter from CMC General Counsel Richard Gonzales, sent on Oct. 31 and received hours before the flier was to be distributed publicly. “The effort may also compromise the respectful and constructive outreach activities that are underway with the North Forty neighbors.
“Under such circumstances, the college would have no choice but to consider legal action against those who participate in the defamatory statements, both against individuals and against the HOA. We advise you to consult your legal counsel before you choose to distribute the defamatory materials.”
On account of receiving the letter, North Forty homeowners scaled back their plans to use Halloween as a platform. Jeanette Darnauer, an Aspen public relations consultant, and Dan Sherman, a North Forty homeowner, said in a statement that the intent of the flier and larger effort “was to share our opinions” on the expansion plan concept floated by CMC earlier this year.
“We were not trying to defame CMC, nor do we believe our comments were defamatory,” the statement says. “However, our small HOA was threatened with a lawsuit by a large, well-funded institution, so we complied with CMC’s attorney’s demands and didn’t distribute the flier referred to in the letter.”
Darnauer and the homeowners declined to release the flier last week, but described it as a two-sided card with about a dozen points on each side.
“Basically, it offered the HOA’s opinions about CMC’s proposed expansion, explained why the neighborhood is concerned about the extensive level of density proposed on such a small lot and expressed concern about how local tax dollars would be spent,” Darnauer wrote in an email.
CMC’s letter did not explain what statements in the flier it believed to be false. College public information officer Debbie Crawford-Arensman, in an email sent to Aspen Daily News earlier this month, highlighted a point raised concerning the college’s communication with John McBride, a longtime local who founded the North Forty neighborhood and the nearby Aspen Business Center.
“One of the pieces of false information in the flier is the statement that the college has not asked to discuss any plans with John McBride since 2015,” Crawford-Arensman wrote. “In truth, since 2010 — including numerous times since 2015 — the college has had at least 25 documented verbal or written interactions with Mr. McBride about expanding the Aspen campus. Mr. McBride has also participated in a number of meetings with the college which addressed in detail the need for housing on or next to the CMC-Aspen campus. During these discussions he has been an active participant in options that would entail building on both his property and/or ours for expansion. The suggestion by both Mr. McBride and furthered by the North Forty that we have not been in communication with the founder of the ABC is simply false.”
McBride on Sunday said he found CMC’s characterization of their communications in relation to the latest proposal to be “quite an exaggeration.” He explained that, around 2015, the college proposed buying an adjoining piece of land for an expansion but those concepts “didn’t work for many reasons.”
“I have interacted with them on their previous program, which we rejected,” McBride said. He added that he has not “sat down across the table with them” to discuss the current effort to expand.
CMC, a regional college district with 12 campuses offering mostly associate degrees and five bachelor’s degrees, as well as many certifications and adult education programs, has made investment in the Aspen campus a priority. Last spring, the college began circulating conceptual drawings for an Aspen campus expansion that would include new academic buildings and a residence hall with up to 175 pillows.
Those drawings depict a plan that is still in its early phases. The college has yet to hire an architect to design a formal proposal and is still in the scoping phase as it works with stakeholders. College officials are adamant they will work with neighbors to come up with a plan that is appropriate for the area.
Crawford-Arensman wrote that “anything the college has brought to the community for discussion so far is conceptual.”
“No plans have been decided upon; no architect has been hired,” she wrote. “ … We are gathering information from the community, and are discouraged when rumors and inaccurate opinions make people fearful and disrupt constructive conversation.”
Materials from this spring described the expansion as taking place on the existing 2.3-acre parcel, though the college has identified a neighboring 1.3-acre parcel that could provide room for “parking or other project uses,” according to a May memo to the college’s board of trustees.
“Management has engaged in discussions with the owners about potential acquisition of the land,” the memo says. “Mutual interest exists to further explore. Additional neighboring parcels remain on the radar. While they would bring more flexibility and options to the project, they are not considered essential to the project.”
The thought of tripling density on the existing CMC site and building a residence hall with space for 175 students has not sat well with North Forty homeowners, who see that much activity as inappropriate for the site and the neighborhood.
“They are concerned about having it become a residential college as opposed to a local college,” Darnauer said last month. “Is it appropriate for a college to have a 2.3-acre campus without the amenities that most college campuses have” such as outdoor areas to recreate, relax and gather? The concern is that the new residents would use the North Forty’s common areas for those purposes, she said.
Since the discussion around Halloween and the letter about the flier, North Forty homeowners have been “regrouping,” Darnauer said last week. The homeowners and CMC met earlier this month in an attempt to move forward constructively, and Darnauer said the development was positive. The neighbors — who have formed an advisory committee to focus on the CMC issue — are taking the conversation seriously and trying to determine their next steps, she said.
“Our hope is that CMC invites the North Forty, ABC neighbors and the larger community to regular meetings as ideas evolve to add disproportionate density to Aspen’s small campus,” says Darnauer and Sherman’s statement.