The scandal in Boulder that won’t go away


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 ( She freelances in Boulder, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Mar 14, 2008 07:32 PM

Ah, by preventing development of that lot, their view is no doubt greatly improved.  The fun question for this ex-Coloradoan is not "was it worth it" but will they pay the property taxes appropriate for a $1.2 million improvement?  I know the answer.

Mar 17, 2008 11:35 AM

Why is Rep. Claire Levy still in office? What is the name of the judge who awarded the stolen land to McLean and Stevens? Why is he still in office?   WHERE IS THE JUSTICE????

Mar 17, 2008 11:37 AM

The oath Btw, is: Take care of your bretheren ( meaning fellow attorneys judges etc ).

Since this guy was a previous district court judge and the wife an attorney, the last judge was just taking care of, and keeping his oath too.

Dirty but legal.  Much of America operates the same way everyday ( couple examples are the war, and the price of gas too...considering gas stocks are at a 15 year high ). 


Mar 20, 2008 02:41 PM

Why is it that sharks do not bite attorneys, who fall overboard?  Professional courteousy!

Mar 25, 2008 03:50 PM

Adverse possession is a necessary law that does not need to be changed. If someone is continuously using your property for 18 years or more and you, as the landowner, don’t do anything about it, than it is your fault. There are 5 requirements for adverse possession:

1)     Open – meaning that the action that someone is doing on your property is open and obvious to you, the land owner.

2)     Continuous – the action is not intermittent, but continuous.

3)     Exclusive – that you, the adverse possessor, is keeping the actual property owner form enjoying their own property the same way you are.

4)     Adverse – you, the adverse possessor, know that you are enjoying someone else’s land, not mistakenly doing so.

5)     Notorious - you, the adverse possessor, are going out of your way to do so (falls in line with Open in that the real, property owner knows you’re doing it and does not care).

And, you must prove in a court of law that you have fulfilled all 5 requirements for 18 years or more without interruption.All the legal property owner has to do is interrupt any 1 of the 5 conditions anywhere in that 18 year window to kill the adverse possession. This is extremely easy to do, and does take but maybe a half-an-hours time to do so. There is no way one could use the excuse “I didn’t know, I never saw it” because if that were the case than requirement 1 as been broken.So if you’re a property owner who lets this happen – than you do not care.

Now this case sounds fishy, it may be that this decision is a bad one. But it should change the existing law.