Landowners question Eagle’s methods, motives for river park property
What does it mean....
Adverse possession is a doctrine under which a person in possession of land owned by someone else may acquire valid title to it, so long as certain common law requirements are met, and the adverse possessor is in possession for a sufficient period of time, as defined by a statute of limitations.
EAGLE — Phyllis Johnson has said it in writing, said it in a newspaper story and, this week, the 92-year-old resident said it directly to members of the Eagle Town Board — her private property located adjacent to the planned Eagle River Park is not for sale.
Johnson made her statement at Tuesday’s meeting, during which she shared the history of the 7.5-acre Barnes Ranch property, which she co-owns with Harlan House, of Goodland, Kansas.
The Barnes Ranch extends from the southern side of the Eagle River, across the riverbed and through the eastern edge of the current parking area where the river park is proposed. The ranch encompasses the ground where the existing fairgrounds parking area entrance is located and extends next to the Chambers Park entry. In early artist renderings and conceptual plans for the river park, the land is earmarked for construction of a bike path and future pedestrian bridge connection.
But when she spoke about the land, Johnson didn’t address the river park vision. Instead, she shared personal stories about growing up on the property. She talked about how her admiration for her parents, who worked that land, cannot be expressed.
“Much of the beauty of the land was lost when the river and the highway was changed,” Johnson said, recalling the decision made in the 1970s to route Interstate 70 through her land.
But despite its diminished boundaries, Johnson’s attachment to the ranch remains.
“Neither Harland House or I desire to sell the Barnes property,” she said.
Fighting for what’s hers
After Johnson’s presentation, her daughter, Alexis Kensinger, pointedly addressed the board.
“While my mom is living her life as she has done for years, the river park is now imposed upon her and she must fight, once again, for what is hers and has been hers for the better part of a century,” Kensinger said.
Kensinger detailed an April 21 letter from the town of Eagle, signed by Mayor Anne McKibbin, that noted acquisition of 1.49 acres of the Barnes Ranch located on the north side of the river was needed to construct “a key part of what we have been proposing.”
“We do not anticipate significant impact or diminution of value to your property on the south side of the river, as much of the property we seek to acquire has been fenced and used by Eagle County as ingress/egress to the fairgrounds for decades, while the remainder is a steep river embankment,” reads the town’s letter.
The town stated that an appraisal of the 1.49-acre parcel estimated its value at $111,320.
“Accordingly, the town of Eagle is offering to pay you $166,980, a 50 percent premium over the appraised value,” states the letter.
But Kensinger noted the Barnes Ranch owners are not interested in subdividing their property to sell off the northern parcel.
“In regard to the inquiry to sell the land on the north side of the river, the owners have repeatedly said no,” said Kensinger, detailing a series of meetings and written communication about the matter. “We will not subdivide the property. We believe the river is valuable to our land and we get to decide. This is America.”
Kensinger also singled out a sentence in the town’s letter related to an adverse possession taking of the property. The town letter stated, “We believe that Eagle County has a strong argument that it has obtained much of the property we are willing to pay for through adverse possession. We offer this premium to resolve this matter amicably outside of any further acquisition proceedings.”
“It is clear that adverse possession is on the table,” Kensinger said. “It is also clear that my mom and Mr. House have paid taxes on the Barnes property, including the truck parking lot owned by them, for many years with no offer from the county for the reimbursement for the use of our land, whatsoever.”
Kensinger noted the property taxes on that land recently tripled and the land has suffered environmental degradation as a result of its use as a truck parking area.
“To recap, the town is threatening adverse possession,” Kensinger said. “That is basically to take the land in the truck parking lot. Is that what we are about in Eagle these days? Taking private land from a local? I wonder how that will play out on the stage of popular opinion — to take land from a 92-year-old lady who has had the land in her family for 90 of those years?”
Kensinger said the town has been giving mixed messages about the Barnes property. In some documents, the town says the land is necessary for the project, while in others, the town indicates it can proceed without the property.
“Many people have approached us to apologize for voting for the river project, unknowing that it involved private property, and we believe that going to the voters without control of or consent from the owners of the property was just wrong,” Kensinger said.
Kensinger said Eagle Town Manager John Schneiger has never met with the property owners to discuss the situation.
“You have made no attempt to meet any member of our family in person or to reach out in any way,” she said. “I believe that working to establish a personal relationship is a basic tenant of leadership, and my mom lives 2 1/2 blocks away.”
In conclusion, Kensinger appealed to members of the Town Board to reject any adverse possession actions and to respect her mother’s stated desire to be left alone.
“It is obvious to us and should be to you that you put the cart before the horse, so to speak, and have moved forward with a project that you told the voters you could deliver,” Kensinger said. “Where is the leadership that will pull us back from the abyss the town has created? We as private landowners and taxpayers need you to do the right thing.”
Following the comments from Johnson and Kensinger, the Town Board did not discuss the river park issue in open session. Members thanked them for their presentation, and discussion of the river park property happened later in the evening during executive session. At the conclusion of the closed-door session, Town Board members said no decisions had been made regarding the river park and the Barnes Ranch property.
The last formal statement from the town indicated the park plan could proceed without the Barnes Ranch property.
“We remain hopeful that we can continue to work with them to respect their ownership and the values they place in the property,” read the town’s April 18 statement.
“A lot of times … people in sports, they retire, and they spend a few months away from the sport that they love … and they come back,” host Craig Melvin said. “Have you thought, perhaps, about un-retiring?”