Developer tears down Willowcroft Manor

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The omnipresent suburban battle is being waged in the tiny town of Columbine Valley, and development company Taylor Morrison has prevailed in the first round.

In April, the town’s board of trustees approved the company’s plan to demolish the former Willowcroft Manor & Farm, 3600 W. Bowles Ave., to make way for 41 single-story patio homes and one large estate home. Soon after, the company did just that, ending an argument about the home’s preservation.

Many tried to save the town’s only real historic property, originally the home of settler Joseph Bowles, but city leaders say the town needs the revenue that would come from development.

“The town of Columbine Valley has no mechanism or law that would allow us to require the owner to preserve the house,” said Mayor Gale Christy.

But the war’s not over yet. Neighbors are launching a surprise attack, with the town’s master plan as their rallying cry. It technically limits maximum density to 2.4 units per acre, less than the 2.95 that Taylor Morrison proposes. So Brian Macaulay is leading an effort to force the matter to a vote of the public.

“The decision the trustees made is not in line with the master plan of the town of Columbine Valley,” he said. “The master plan clearly describes a standard that all new developments must create and maintain the open feel of Columbine Valley, and must beautify and enhance it. The residents have said that time and time again, in both written and verbal public testimony, and they are upset about the trustees’ decision on density. We’re a coalition of people from multiple homeowners associations that are very much against this project and working together in a coordinated fashion to preserve the open feel, as much as possible, in the town of Columbine Valley.”

He needs to get just 57 people — 5 percent of the registered voters in the town — to sign the petition to force the trustees to reconsider their vote. If they refuse, there will be a special general election two to six months later.

He thinks the referendum will be successful and predicts people will agree there’s no value in a high-density project at the doorstep of Columbine Valley. Efforts to reach the developer were unsuccessful, but city leaders aren’t so sure.

“Dr. Macaulay has a constitutional right to participate in the referendum process, and if he is moving forward with a petition he has the right to do so,” said Christy. “I have no idea if the trustees will change their votes on Willowcroft if a petition is successful, nor do I have any idea whether the question, whatever it is, will go to a vote of our electorate. I really do not want to speculate on this matter.”

Mary Wolf, whose husband grew up in the house, says she’s cried enough tears and suffered enough sleepless nights over the situation, and she isn’t inclined to knock on doors to gather signatures.

“I understand where the developer is coming from,” she said. “What I don’t understand is Columbine Valley. The house was the only historic property they have. And going against the master plan’s density is not going to enhance the community. But I’ve been fighting this battle for a long time. I’m tired.”

Wolf visited the property every day for nearly 35 years with her late husband, Bruce. He grew up there after it was purchased in 1945 by his mother, Cynthia, who lived there until shortly before her death in 2005. The Wolfs, both prominent real-estate agents locally, had envisioned retiring there, and the main house was perfect for big, blended family holidays.

Bruce Wolf was the executor of his mother’s estate until his death in 2008, at which time his half brother, David Owen, took over. Owen had no interest in keeping the property and, in 2009, sold it at auction “in five minutes for $1,430,000,” according to Rocky Mountain Estate Brokers Realty’s website. The minimum bid was $860,000.

The main house was built in 1884 and designed by Robert Roeschlaub, also known for the Central City Opera House. There were also two barns, a bunkhouse and a smokehouse on the property. There were hopes that the developer could be convinced to convert the house to a community center or something similar.

“It’s a solid building,” said Rachel Parris of Colorado Preservation Inc. “It could easily be rehabbed into something really special for the community.”

Parris literally sobbed as she pleaded with the Columbine Valley Board of Trustees in April to save the Willowcroft residence.

“I can think of no better way to welcome people into your community than having this manor still standing to show people what was here before this happened,” she said through tears.

There had been talk of trying to move the house, but even Wolf said it just wasn’t practical. She and other members of Historic Littleton Inc. discussed it at one time, but they couldn’t find a place to put it. Besides, she said, the walls were a foot thick.

Historic Littleton Inc. worked to get the property listed on the Colorado State Register of Historic Places in 1993. Then Colorado Preservation Inc. put it on its list of most endangered places in 2010, right alongside the state Capitol dome.

“Willowcroft is surrounded on two sides by a neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes, which results in significant development pressure,” reads the CPI website. “While still livable, the main house is suffering from deferred maintenance, as are the barns and other outbuildings. Colorado Preservation Inc. has started a discussion with the owner, encouraging preservation of both the land and the buildings as an urban farmstead.”

With those discussions clearly having failed, it’s inevitable that the property will be developed. But Macaulay thinks the developer should slow down a little.

“He should stop now,” he said. “Once he realizes there will be resistance, every dollar he puts in could be a dollar wasted. … People need to ask themselves whether this high-density project is something that will enhance the open feel of the town of Columbine Valley and beautify it. If the answer is no, then people should make their voices heard. I want to send a very clear message to the town trustees that they need to represent the interests of the residents of Columbine Valley, and not those of the developer. It really seems like they’re just doing what they want to do.”