From the very beginning, Leslie Fields knew the Telluride Valley Floor condemnation case was going to be different.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill case,” said Fields, the lead attorney in the Town of Telluride’s efforts to acquire the 572-acre Valley Floor through its powers of eminent domain.
“I knew it would be special and unique, but I never imagined it would last 10 years and be as emotional as it was.”
Which says quite a lot.
Fields, a partner at the law firm of Faegre and Benson in Denver, has not only been practicing eminent domain law since 1983 after graduating with honors from the University of Denver College of Law two years earlier, but she has seen the process from both sides of the aisle and from virtually every angle.
In the 25 years she has practiced in her specialty, Fields has represented both private and governmental entities seeking condemnation through eminent domain, as well as private landowners seeking just compensation for properties that have been condemned.
In fact, Fields has been involved with nearly every major governmental project within the state, according to her firm’s website.
She represented private landowners in the condemnation of approximately 15,000 acres of land, mineral and water rights for the Denver International Airport. She was also involved in the Downtown Convention Center, Highways C-470 and E-470, and most recently the I-25 Highway Expansion Project.
Yet even for as seasoned an attorney as Fields, who currently co-chairs the American Law Institute-American Bar Association national conference on eminent domain and land valuation, the Valley Floor condemnation defied traditional wisdom
“This case dealt with a landowner who was not motivated by the usual reasons,” she explained. And the usual reasons all boil down to the bottom line.
“Receiving just the money wasn’t his goal; defeating the condemnation was his goal,” she reflected on the actions taken by Neal Blue and his San Miguel Valley Corporation.
“It was just a very different experience for me,” she continued. “When the verdict came back and awarded exactly the money he wanted and he still decided to appeal, that was very surprising to me,” she said, referring to the 2007 decision of a Delta County jury to award Blue $50 million in exchange for the condemnation of his property.
“There were some dark days and that just makes the story more exciting,” she said.
Fields admitted feeling disappointment at the jury’s verdict out of concern that the town might not raise the money within the tight deadline imposed by the court.
Indeed, it wouldn’t be the only time during the lawsuit she described as a rollercoaster that Fields felt discouraged.
”For every advance there seemed to be a setback,” she said.
But the town did prevail in raising the sum, and it strengthened her resolve to fight on.
“Raising the money and being able to call the judge and tell him that – that was a great day,” she said.
Not to mention that “every time I was discouraged the town just rallied and gave me the inspiration to overcome it and keep my eye on the real prize,” she said.
“The town and the community gave me the strength.”
The case also became more political than Fields had typically experienced.
In March 2004, Telluride filed for condemnation of the property.
The following month the SMVC asked District Court Judge Charles Greenacre to dismiss the condemnation petition.
And then “all of a sudden this amendment comes down,” Fields remembered.
In May 2004, the Colorado Legislature passed HB 1203, which contained the so-called “Telluride Amendment.” The subsection stated that home rule municipalities could neither acquire by condemnation, nor provide any funding to a third party to acquire by condemnation, property located outside their boundaries, except in the case of public utilities or public works.
SMVC attorney Thomas Ragonetti was seen as the driving force behind the special purpose legislation that targeted Telluride’s condemnation efforts.
“I was amazed that [Blue] could lobby to get that passed, but I always felt we would prevail if the court relied on the law,” she said.
And through it all, the town never wavered in its resolve to proceed, Fields said with admiration.
“There was never any doubt that that was what they wanted to do,” she said. And that drove her to work even harder.
“They were so committed and sacrificed so much, I couldn’t do anything less than that.”
Which is why, when the case finally appeared before the Colorado Supreme Court in January 2008, Fields chose to argue the case alone.
While some have speculated that the move was a canny legal tactic made to suggest a David and Goliath-like battle and win sympathy, Fields denied it.
“It wasn’t really that I was trying to convey something, it was just something I had to do on my own,” she said. “I felt it was my responsibility.”
Fields said she never doubted that Telluride would win its case – providing the court followed the law.
“I always thought very strongly about the strength of our legal position,” she said.
“I always felt that if the court followed the law – and there was almost 100 years of legal precedent that supported our position almost entirely – that we would win.”
Although Fields said she worked to maintain a professional distance from the case, after working on it for 10 years it, the court’s decision inevitably evoked some emotion. After all, the court’s decision would affect an entire community that worked so hard for so long to acquire the Valley Floor.
Nevertheless, she needed to leave emotion behind to concentrate on making the most effective legal argument she could.
“It was not a time for me to dwell on the personal issues,” she said. “First and foremost you have to be crystal clear on your legal argument.”
But when on June 2 the court found the Telluride Amendment unconstitutional in its attempt to take away Telluride's power of eminent domain – and in a very strongly worded 6-1 opinion at that – Fields finally exhaled.
“When the opinion came down, the case took on a personal note for me,” she said. “I feel very strongly about all my cases, but it seemed to generate more emotion than most.”
Fields is looking forward to attending the Valley Floor celebration this weekend with her husband and daughter.
“I’m so happy that we have this chance to celebrate and to stand on the ground we acquired,” she said.
“I can’t imagine it being anything other than open space and parkland.”