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Small town interactions matter

It was probably best that Merck and Reaman did not run into one another last week when the paper came out. Crested Butte councilman Paul Merck was not happy, to say the least, with a news story and editorial written by me in the June 16 issue of the paper. He felt they were unfair and mean. I felt they were raw but honest and overall pretty gentle on an elected official.

From about Monday June 12 through Monday morning June 19, we communicated, not always pleasantly, through text, email and phone. On Monday morning we sat down in Mountaineer Square and talked. Paul still thinks the coverage was not fair and too personal. I am still disappointed with how he handled his situation with the town building department. Communicating in person helped clear the air, and helped us see each other as people not just problems.

But this piece is not about either of those perspectives. Rather, it is about a small-town dynamic. When two people disagree, even vehemently and personally, the fact that they are willing to sit down and chat used to be part of community protocol. I’ve always liked the idea of bare-knuckle debate followed by shared beers. Hashing out differences face-to-face in a small town instead of through lawyers is in theory how this stuff used to work.

And so Monday afternoon I shook my head as I read the correspondence and background material between the town and new owners of 40 acres on the edge of town, Sheep Mountain Partners, LLC. In what appeared to me to be a simple win-win for all the parties, longtime Crested Butte family, the Kapushions, had floated an idea to pipe and improve a ditch that ran through some property on the north end of town the family is looking to develop. The town, a one-third owner of the ditch, was willing to step up to help make it happen. The third ditch owner was quiet but onboard with the proposal. Sheep Mountain Partners, also an owner of the ditch, did not seem to like the idea at all.

The family sheltered under the LLC apparently felt in long-term jeopardy. It is hard for me to understand why but in the correspondence they appear to want a lot of things with no risk and want the Kapushions and town to pay for it all. So the LLC hired a lawyer to be their representative. I spoke with the lawyer on Tuesday and attorney Mark Hamilton said the issue was more complex than most people understand. I believe that. But I know when you talk to a lawyer as the first line of negotiation, even one as cordial and helpful as Hamilton, things stiffen up, take longer and get more complex.

Good lawyers aren’t cheap. I worry there is more of an inclination to hire a lawyer and settle things that way or through court instead of picking up the phone and having a coffee with the neighbors. If one side uses a lawyer, the other would be foolish not to and the town is spending some of your tax reserves.

No one would disagree that lawyers are necessary in most deals to work out the details of any agreement. They cross the T’s and dot the I’s. It may be that for people of certain means, it is more efficient to skip the niceties and coffee and move to the end result by paying for it with money instead of time. And of course if an equitable solution cannot be reached after real effort, a lawyer and the court are appropriate. That’s the system. The system just seems to be coming into play more often and much more quickly lately.

It might be about a ditch improvement. It might be about deed restrictions on an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) that you want to ignore. It might be about your alley, your pets, your arts project or your rental opportunities but lawyers now seem to always be in the wings waiting to challenge. In a small town where everyone runs into one another at the post office or Alpenglow, shouldn’t that come after a sincere attempt to solve an issue as neighbors first? That means making the effort of talking to one another without the filter of legalese.

My understanding is that in this case there was an early ditch conversation between the town and property owners but once an agreement and ditch plan was put together way back in October the dialogue stopped and then went through the lawyer in May, when it looked like movement was inevitable. I get the feeling things might be running deeper. I wouldn’t be shocked if a separate interaction with the town might have tweaked the owners (surprise!) and that chip could still be on their shoulder. I don’t know all the details but on the surface, it appears a big city way to do business in a small town.

I would bet a dime to a dollar that the last time that ditch was relocated it was done through a two-minute conversation and a handshake. Those encounters are disappearing these days, and that’s really too bad.

So Merck and I sat and chatted Monday. We did not come to any mutual agreement about who was right or wrong. Our opinions did not change. But we looked one another in the eye, agreed to disagree, agreed that we would probably butt heads occasionally in the future but we could still appreciate one another and not be angry or awkward when we crossed paths or found ourselves sharing a happy hour somewhere.

Without saying so directly, we agreed to handle the matter like members of a small-town community; up front, with some effort and a bit of understanding. It was about real communication as neighbors and people—not just a disagreement to be won.

—Mark Reaman

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