A decades-old problem involving a rogue neighborhood northwest of Durango that has seen little oversight or regulation over the years has seemingly, and suddenly, come to a resolution.
“I think it’s great we have a private citizen who wants to do something really good,” said La Plata County Treasurer Allison Aichele. “I use the term, ‘leave a legacy,’ and I don’t think that’s his intention. But that is the end result, he is leaving a legacy for our community.”
Back in the 1970s, a 185-acre property was divided into about 420 quarter-acre lots, near the intersection of Junction Creek Road (County Road 204) and County Road 205.
But because the neighborhood was plotted before the county’s Building Department was created, none of the standard issues like access roads and necessary infrastructure, i.e., sewer and water, were taken into consideration.
So when the Building Department was later formed, developers had a tough time getting anything approved. The road to the property, for instance, remains incredibly steep and is the only way in or out.
“There’s been a number of attempts (to develop) over the years, but nothing has been approved ... because of that underlying inadequacy of infrastructure,” county spokeswoman Megan Graham said previously.
Now, about half of the lots are owned by individual private landowners, and the other half are owned by a developer called Corona. An attorney for Corona did not respond to a request for comment.
Over the years, Corona stopped paying its property taxes on its lots. As a result, La Plata County by default started taking on the tax liens, which are like a bond with interest, and not the property itself.
Aichele said the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners in November applied for the treasurer’s deed (essentially to acquire the property) on more than 200 of those properties.
The idea, Aichele said, was for the county to then resell the property.
But it would have cost the county about $447,000 to pay off the properties’ back taxes (which would have been recovered in the eventual sale), and another $250,000 for the Treasurer’s Office to process the deeds, Aichele said.
And because no money was set aside for the endeavor in last year’s budget, the process was put on hold.
Around the first week of February, Aichele notified Corona representatives it was their last chance to pay off the back taxes by Feb. 15 or the property would fall under control of the county.
That’s when a private resident stepped in, Aichele said, and made the problem go away.
About a week later, Aichele received a call from a La Plata County resident who expressed interest in buying the tax liens. But because the resident did not have a legal interest in the properties, he was not legally allowed to purchase the liens.
The solution? Buy the properties, Aichele said. And that’s exactly what the resident started to do.
“Legally, he couldn’t pay the taxes,” she said. “Only if he became the owner.”
The man, identified as Falls Creek resident Jim Grizzard, contacted Corona’s attorneys and obtained a list of all the property owners in Durango Estates, a number Aichele said is in the hundreds.
“He’s contacting these people and negotiating buying the properties from them,” Aichele said.
To date, Aichele said Grizzard has bought more than half the properties in the neighborhood. No one contacted has turned down selling their property, she said. The cost of the sales is unknown.
Then, after Grizzard buys the properties, he pays off the back taxes. Again, to date, Aichele said Grizzard has paid off an estimated $500,000 in taxes owed.
The other half of the properties in Durango Estates don’t have back taxes, though Aichele said Grizzard is also purchasing properties with no delinquent taxes.
So what’s Grizzard’s goal after buying properties in Durango Estates?
“I’m not a developer,” Grizzard said Wednesday. “Hopefully, I’m an undeveloper.”
Grizzard said he’s lived in the Falls Creek area since the 1980s, and for years, he and his neighbors have been concerned about the potential size of Durango Estates if built out at full capacity, and all the traffic, sewer and water issues and wildfire risks that could come with it.
As more people recently started to buy tax liens at low cost in Durango Estates, neighbors started to see an increase in people camping on their lots, building fires and not having regulated sewer and septic systems. As a result, those concerns reached a fever pitch.
“It’s a problem that needs to be addressed,” Grizzard said.
Grizzard said his goal is to buy as many of the lots in Durango Estates as possible. While no finalized plans are in place, Grizzard said he wants to return most of the property back to public land to increase recreational opportunities.
Durango Estates abuts the San Juan National Forest, and for years, the area has been used to access those public lands.
“We’ll see how far we can get with it,” Grizzard said.
Regardless, Aichele said, “everyone wins” in this situation.
The taxes owed will finally go to things like school and fire districts. About 200 private investors who in the last 30 years purchased the liens and then abandoned them, are made whole on their investment, Aichele said.
“Their investments were lost until the back taxes were paid,” she said.
And La Plata County doesn’t have to take on the burden of selling the land, or dishing out the $250,000 to the Treasurer’s Office that would not have been recoverable.
“He’s trying to do something really good for the community,” Aichele said. “It’s been going on a long time, a decadeslong problem in the making. And no one had a good solution to this.”
Only about two lots are occupied full time in Durango Estates. Attempts to reach the residents were not successful Wednesday.