This is a story about lawyers, guns and money wrapped around a conflict over land use five miles north of Wolcott.People living in the Horse Mountain and adjoining Willow Creek subdivisions don’t think Magnus Lindholm, who owns most of the properties there, has been a very good neighbor. Some even say they fear what he might do if they oppose him.They believe he’s attempting a land grab by trying to change the homeowner rules for uses allowed on their properties and by attempting to control the metro district that maintains roads and other services there.The neighboring subdivisions northwest of 4Eagle Ranch consist of spectacular vistas of the Gore and Sawatch mountain ranges from rolling, sage-covered hills topped by aspen groves. The subdivisions totaling 5,000 acres, broken into 35- to 53-acre parcels, lie hidden to the west and above Highway 131. So far there are 10 homes and one more under construction. Lots there aren’t cheap, carrying a price tags approaching $250,000, depending on their location. Water can be hard to find there. Most homes get their water from wells, if fortunate enough to tap into enough to sustain a household.Lindholm summarily dismisses the property owners’ suspicions and denies that he wants their land. He views the situation a little differently than do the residents and other landowners there. He said it’s really a land use question that boils down the property being used as a ranch or residential subdivision.”What they did is change the land,” Lindholm said. “This is agricultural land, and we think that should be reflected in the (homeowner) covenants.”That sentiment worries homeowner Tracy Farrell, who has owned land at Horse Mountain for a decade and built his dream home in 1998.”I’ve got my whole future here in my house,” Farrell said. “It’s my dream to have 40 acres out in the middle of nowhere. I don’t trust him.”By owning the majority of lots in the subdivision, Lindholm’s trust controls the board of the Willow Creek Homeowners Association, one of three homeowners associations in the development. So far, he does not control the others. He has engaged in what residents call strong-armed legal and financial maneuvering. They said he wants to make it tougher for them to live there by changing the homeowner rules adopted in 1983 and amended most recently in 1990. Those covenants were designed around the concept of a residential subdivision.Not surprisingly, relations between representatives of the trust and the homeowners have become deeply strained, and distrust is more the rule than exception.Lindholm said he has purchased additional lots as they have come up for sale and he “may” be interested in purchasing more. But he said he’s not out to take over the entire 5,000-acre development. “Nobody can force anybody to do anything they don’t want to do,” he said. “I want to use the land the way it has always been used.”He vehemently denied he’s trying to drive homeowners out so he can purchase the entire area and add it to his trust.”It’s absolutely unfounded,” he said. “That’s not true at all.”But the homeowners at Horse Mountain and Willow Creek say they have seen plenty of evidence of what some have called a metastatic approach Lindholm’s trust has taken to trying to control the property.”It’s amazing to me that it’s so tough for him to work with a group of us and make it work for everybody,” said Farrell. “He wants it all and doesn’t want to compromise.”Property owner Charles Gongaware said Lindholm’s representatives have approached him, offering that he trade his 40 acres for a townhome at the 1,800-acre Village at Avon that Lindholm is developing on the east side of Avon. Gongaware refused. Others working for Lindholm, he said, have told him they would “make his life a living hell” and that they wanted to “bulldoze” his home.
“They really don’t want us there,” Gongaware said. “They wanted to trade us for a townhome” – he winced – “in Avon.”Lindholm regularly grazes a couple of thousand sheep on the former ranch in the summer, a violation of the homeowners associations’ covenants, they say. Lindholm said he had a grazing lease with the previous owners of the property.Election hardballNeighbors and landowners such as Jody Lindvall, Nancy Dooher and Blair Bakken said that in February, Lindholm’s representatives attempted to gain control of the Horse Mountain Ranch Metropolitan District in May’s election. Three of the five metro board seats were open on the district that spans the three subdivisions. By some maneuvering that included transfers of small parts of property owned by Lindholm’s trust through “quit claims” to employees of his Piney Valley Ranch and other employees, that increased the number of eligible voters Lindholm could bring to the polls. A quit claim is a simple property transfer without the warranty that a more complicated deed carries.That, the homeowners said, was done despite assurances from Lindholm’s representatives at a previous metro board meeting that there would be no such actions.”It was their one opportunity to take over,” said Bakken. “This was planned before.””We were blind-sided,” said Dooher, who with her husband, Jerry, owns two lots at Horse Mountain. “We all bought our property based on the existing homeowner covenants.”Several homeowners have talked with state Sen. Jack Taylor seeking help, but he said there’s little he can do. The trust came up with more than 20 quit claim deeds that boosted the potential eligible voter total to where it surpassed that of the existing resident and property owner total. If the election were held, Lindholm’s representatives would have a voting majority.But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, too. The property owners quickly quit claimed parts of their land, giving slivers of land to trusted relatives. They came up with enough voters to retain control of the metro board. In the end, the homeowners prevailed 96 to 29 and have control over the metro board for the next four years. The board has the power to condemn land for easements, so it was a significant election.Lindholm has also taken issue with a $500-per-lot special assessment charged by the metro district for road maintenance.In the first meeting of the new board, remaining under the control of the homeowners, Lindholm’s representative Eric Applegate read a prepared statement claiming that a special roads assessment was “inequitable” because the price is the same for an undeveloped lot as for a lot with a residence on it. Applegate told the board that if the issue was not resolved, he would move to have some or all of Lindholm’s land removed from the district. Road maintenance for the homeowners is key because in wet weather, traveling the muddy roads becomes a dodgy proposition. If the roads weren’t maintained, that would make it tougher to live there, homeowners said.Several landowners, fearing retaliation for speaking publicly, said they felt that representatives of the trust have threatened and tried to intimidate them.”This guy is not a good neighbor,” said one. “He only takes.”Lindholm said he hasn’t heard of any animosity in his dealings with his neighbors.
“My belief is that he wants to drive us out of there at the lowest possible price. And to do that if he has to intimidate us, and squeeze us any which way he can, he will and he is,” Lindvall said.Changing the gameThe homeowners are girding for another battle, one that they fear they can’t win. Lindholm and his Piney Valley Trust, by owning the majority of the lots in the Willow Creek subdivision, control the homeowners association board. They’re proposing changes to the covenants for living there. The most sweeping change would convert the area to “agricultural” instead of “residential,” as the covenants now read.And some of those changes would make it far more expensive for owners of vacant lots to build their homes, they say.The proposed design review and deposit fees have increased to nearly $9,000 per submission, homeowners said, a price they say is more representative of Beaver Creek or Bachelor Gulch.”Who’s going to want to build out there with that type of situation going on?” said Farrell.Lindholm dismissed that argument.”These are expensive lots, so they should have houses that are good looking, and they should blend in with nature,” he said. “Design review fees are way lower than design review fees anywhere in the valley. They don’t cover the cost. We (the trust) have to pay for the balance.”Those design review charges do match those in Beaver Creek, according to the Beaver Creek Design Review Board, but the deposits in Beaver Creek are higher.One proposed change to the homeowner covenants calls for allowing the use of firearms in the subdivision – which is prohibited under the current rules.That didn’t sit well with Drs. Patti and Gordon Hardenbergh, who have four children and were interested in purchasing an existing home in the subdivision. They have since decided against it.”We love it up there,” said Patti, a radiation oncologist at the Shaw Regional Cancer Center in Edwards. “I love the house and property. I am not willing to risk my children being hit by a bullet to live in a beautiful place. It just doesn’t make sense. That is the deal-breaker for us.”Lindholm said he’s only changing the rules so they’re like they are across the rest of the state.”Anyone dealing with firearms and hunting has to follow the rules,” he said. “It’s nothing different from the rest of Colorado.”There has been a carrot approach applied, as well. At a homeowners meeting last week, Lindholm’s representatives asked homeowners to consider leasing their property to Lindholm’s trust for $1 a year with the benefit of lower taxes by being deemed agricultural land in return for the homeowners’ acquiescence.One issue that has consistently rubbed the residents there the wrong way is a gate that Lindholm has installed on the private Willow Creek Road, one of two entrances to the sprawling development. The other entrance has a permanently locked gate. The Willow Creek Road gate is intended to keep livestock in. But at random times, residents say, it is locked whether livestock are there or not. While the combination to the lock has been distributed to residents, it’s an issue of convenience and safety, they say.Under the proposed covenant provision, that gate has to be left as it was found – either locked or unlocked. Lindholm said the lock and chain on the gate have been destroyed several times, by the homeowners.
Reservoir?Retiree Howard Schmidt and his wife, Myrna, purchased land and built a home at Horse Mountain two years ago. He said he isn’t sure what Lindholm wants as it relates to the land his house overlooks.”It’s been a puzzle to us to know what they have in mind,” Schmidt said. “Maybe they are aware of a new reservoir going in and that they have all this property to develop with the lake there. Obviously, they want to get control.”That reservoir is the proposed Wolcott Reservoir, which would fill up the valley now occupied by the 4Eagle Ranch, just below and to the east of the Horse Mountain area. It is estimated that this reservoir, which would be less than half the size of Summit County’s Dillon Reservoir, could be built within a decade.Lindholm denied wanting to develop the land. Water, he said, has always been a problem at the subdivision.”There’s no water up there,” he said. “You’d have better luck going to Monte Carlo. The people who were developing that couldn’t develop that. There are 10 houses up there after 21 years. That says to me a a lot about the whole thing.”———————————————————–Sidebar 1At a glanceProposed covenant changes for the Willow Creek subdivision:• Removing 50-foot easements along Willow and Alkali creeks that now accommodate picnicking and fishing and allowing only picnicking because there are no fishable creeks.• Replacing barbed wire fences with wildlife-friendly fences along the outside perimeter of the property.• Changing the verbiage from “residential subdivision” to lands that are “agricultural and ranching lands.”• Changing a provision limiting the number of animals on each tract and those restricting livestock.• Removing a provision that prohibits dogs barking after hours.• Deleting a provision that prohibits discharge of firearms within the subdivision.• Deleting provisions controlling annexation of more land to the subdivision and adding new easements.• Deleting a provision allowing continuation of roadway and utility easements across the property.
• Adding a provision acknowledging the “historically operated” gate on Willow Creek Road.————————————-Sidebar 2Horse Mountain historyThe Horse Mountain Ranch area was sold by rancher Perry Olson, in the early 1980s to developers Morgan Merrill and Joe O’Connor, who renamed it Waterford Ranch. It consisted of three separate homeowners associations: Elk Meadows, Horse Mountain Estates and Willow Creek Highlands. The 5,000-acre spread, now named the Homesteads at Horse Mountain Ranch, consist of 35- to 53-acre tracts and was envisioned to be a residential subdivision near the proposed Wolcott Reservoir, which then was being planned by the Denver Water Board. That reservoir was put on hold for nearly two decades and only recently has it re-emerged as a potentially viable project.That was the start of a checkered development history for the land. Merrill and O’Connor’s development didn’t succeed. The early development had no utility services and the roads were just dirt, as they still are. At better than 25 miles from Vail, it was too far out to attract buyers. It ended up being owned by the lender, Geico Financial.Magnus Lindholm first acquired approximately 2,000 acres from the estate of Merrill after he died in an airplane crash.Developer Mitch Morgan and David Veldman, of the Fort Collins-based Veldman Morgan Commercial Inc., purchased the remaining lots from Geico and started Horse Mountain LLC in 1994 and formed the Horse Mountain Metro District. With a $30,000 special assessment to owners, they were able to build roads and bring electric service to the property. But buyers still didn’t flock there.By 2000, Morgan sold his interest, some 47 lots, to Lindholm, who now owns 69 of the 109 lots in the metro district, which includes the three original homeowners associations.————————————————————-Sidebar 3:About Magnus LindholmThe deep-pocketed Swedish industrialist, tax attorney and developer, whom some say is a billionaire, is the largest private landowner in Eagle County with 30,000 or more acres controlled by his Piney Valley Trust. He purchased that land from the estate of rancher Perry Olson in 1990 and has acquired other parcels since then. He owns 12 percent of the 248,000 acres of private land in the county. Lindholm’s expansive ranchland lies immediately east and north of Horse Mountain in the Piney River Valley.He’s also developing the 1,800-acre Village at Avon, which has two big box retailers, and he has other holdings around the globe. In addition to agricultural operations, he also operates a guiding and outfitting business on his ranch land.Cliff Thompson can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 949-0555, ext. 450.