The scandal that people are still talking about in Boulder, Colo., isn’t the murder of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey; it’s about a rich couple “stealing” land from their neighbors -- and getting away with it in court. The latest tidbit involving Dick McLean, a former Boulder Mayor and district court judge, and his wife, an attorney, was revealed recently by local police. It seems that in December, someone sent the couple a package enclosing bullets and a threatening letter (“Back in the old West we had a way to deal with your kind…”).
Police said they’ve gotten nowhere on finding the perpetrator, but as a sign of how contentious the issue remains, several online commentators in the Boulder Daily Camera insisted that the couple had sent the package to themselves to garner sympathy.
You might wonder why this story about a pricey lot on the ironically named Hardscrabble Drive could rouse such passion. But the land, surrounded by publicly owned open space and spectacular mountain views, is one of the few remaining undeveloped parcels in the neighborhood, where homes sell upwards of $1.2 million. Don and Susie Kirlin have owned the lot since the mid-1980s as part of their retirement plan. In the meantime, they live less than a half-mile away.
Like lots of property owners, the Kirlins had never heard of the legal doctrine known as adverse possession before it struck home. Throughout history, the law has helped squatters to acquire homes and farmers and ranchers to gain title from absentee owners. In contemporary times, it’s most often invoked to settle boundary disputes where walls and fences encroach on neighboring land.
In Colorado, the law permits trespassers to claim land without compensation if they use it openly and continuously for at least 18 years without the permission of the owners. McLean and Stevens argued in court that they were more “attached” to the vacant lot than the legal title holders, because they’d used the land for 20 years to access their backyard, throw parties and store firewood. They claimed the use created a trail dubbed “Edie’s Path,” which was key to their suit. A judge ruled in their favor last October, awarding them a swath 80 feet wide, and this made the remainder of the lot almost impossible to build upon.
The case ignited a firestorm in the blogosphere and newspaper editorial pages with accusations of political cronyism and abuse of the law. In November, a crowd of 200 protesters flocked to the vacant lot, holding signs with slogans like “You’ll never enjoy a stolen view,” and “McLean is insane.” And once, when McLean and Stevens pulled out of their driveway, a woman rushed their car shouting, “Thief,” “Liar,” and, “How can you live with yourself?”
Stevens has said she felt beleaguered by the public outcry. Yet even longtime political allies are distancing themselves. State Rep. Claire Levy, whose campaign treasurer was none other than Edie Stevens, was reluctant to speak out on the case, but pressured by some of her constituents, Levy has sponsored a bill that revises the adverse possession law.
Her “Land Grab” bill requires trespassers to prove that they acted in good faith, believing the land was theirs, and it allows judges to require payment for any land awarded. In February, the bill advanced to the full House after receiving unanimous approval from the Judiciary Committee.
If passed, the bill will come too late for the Kirlins, though they have filed a motion to reconsider the ruling on their case, stating that McLean and Stevens fabricated evidence. The Kirlins have presented an aerial photograph from 2006 that they say shows no path. They also have an affidavit from a surveyor stating he felt pressured by a superior to draw “Edie’s Path” on a survey, when he had never observed such a path. The former judge and attorney deny any wrongdoing.
Even if they win the battle, McLean and Stevens are still losers. They used their knowledge of the law to take something of great value from their neighbors, and like it or not, the two have become symbols of greed and immorality. As the years go by, I picture Edie’s Path falling into disuse as former friends create excuses to decline invitations to backyard parties. I envision glares from neighbors, stares from passersby. What I can’t imagine is how it could have been worth it.
Monique Cole is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She freelances in Boulder, Colorado.