$400,000 buys property - and a vote

  • Development at Mountain Village near Telluride - Rob Huber/Telluride Time

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Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Eagle County balks at fourth mega-resort.

MOUNTAIN VILLAGE, Colo. - Rich or poor, each American casts a single ballot: one person, one vote. Except here in Colorado's newest town, where the real estate investors vote and the seasonal workers usually can't.

Mountain Village is a gated community zoned for 8,000 people, although only about 800 occupy homes there now. It's close to the ski area and 750 feet above the former mining town of Telluride. Ski slopes and golf fairways wind their way among huge log "cabins' in a town founded and governed by Telluride ski company executives and wealthy developers.

Even if they already vote in New York, Los Angeles or Dallas, property owners can vote here, too; a whopping 85 percent of them are non-residents. They've paid dearly for this right: An empty residential lot now costs over $400,000, and the average house sells for $1.3 million.

Employee housing, according to the town charter, is concentrated in two of the seven voting districts. Seasonal workers can only vote if they satisfy a six-month residency requirement: six times longer than anywhere else in Colorado.

The rules have freed Mountain Village from the constraints of neighboring Telluride, where 20 percent of tax income is diverted to open-space acquisition. Mountain Village had its biggest construction year to date in 1995. By year's end, $62 million in real estate changed hands. By comparison, Telluride real estate sales were down 30 percent in 1995.

But are the voting restrictions legal? The American Civil Liberties Union filed a civil-rights class-action lawsuit against Mountain Village, saying the town had created an unconstitutional scheme to concentrate representation in the hands of real estate interests. The ACLU noted that celebrity non-residents such as Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump and Sylvester Stallone receive ballots in the mail while local residents must drive to the polls.

Meanwhile, some town employees are rebelling. Mountain Village Police Chief Jim Prendergast, a former Outward Bound instructor and Paonia, Colo., police chief, resigned in January. He called the town's voting rules "unethical," and said he was disturbed by the town's retaliation against one of the few resident homeowners, Joan May, who works at Telluride's public radio station. Because May is a critic of the voting laws, and had tipped off the ACLU, the town named her in a lawsuit of its own.

Pendergast's resignation and heat from the ACLU have not flustered Mountain Village Mayor Darrell Huschke. "We'll do whatever it takes (to maintain the voting system)," he said recently, breaking an official silence with the media.

Boasting aside, there is little to suggest Mountain Village will prevail in court. When ACLU lawyers tried to track down any legal research performed by the author of the town charter, Mountain Village attorney Carroll Boudreaux, they found none. Mountain Village sacked Boudreaux shortly thereafter.

The ACLU's case against the town was filed Jan. 22 in federal court. Attorney Barry Satlow says the town's voting rules violate the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment to the Constitution. He also says they are part of a larger plan to avoid county and state land-use laws and make development easier for real estate interests.

Morgan Lee works for the Daily Planet in Telluride, Colorado.

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