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A look back at the year 2016

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Tough times at charter school; state rep jailed

By Corinne Westeman and Deb Hurley Brobst

Turmoil at a local charter school, a state representative sent to jail, and community cleanup efforts were among the top stories in the mountain area in 2016. 

Rocky Mountain Academy finds a path forward

Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen is moving forward after many months of discord that culminated in a protest by parents and students in October.

The school’s new board has laid off teachers and cut other areas to balance the budget, which had a $570,000 shortfall. Officials are hoping students who left in recent months will return and that new students will be recruited to attend the Jeffco charter school.

The turmoil came to a head in early October when all but one of the school’s board members resigned. The following week, Roberta Harrell, RMAE’s executive director at the beginning of the school year, fired four teachers and two deans, which spurred a protest the next morning outside the school by about 100 parents and students.The remaining school board member, Kyle Stults, appointed a new board, which voted to fire Harrell and reinstate the teachers. It then hired Dr. Gary Stueven as interim executive director of the school.

Stueven spent his first weeks on the job laying off seven teachers and staff from the K-8 school and two preschool teachers to help balance the budget.

The board is working to cultivate a more collaborative culture among parents, staff and the board.

Portion of Evergreen Lake Trail closes

The north portion of the Evergreen Lake Trail starting at the new connector bridge downtown and running to and along Upper Bear Creek Road was closed in April because of unsafe conditions caused by erosion.

The Evergreen Park and Recreation District has landed more than $400,000 in grants to find a long-term solution to the soil erosion under the trail.

The district had hoped to execute a short-term fix in September, but that plan was nixed in October as temperatures had dropped too low for colloidal concrete to set properly.

In November, the EPRD board increased the amount budgeted for repairs in 2017 from $80,000 to $262,500 in hopes of reopening the trail this spring. It could take several years before a permanent, long-term solution is funded.

Tom Babb perseveres through adversity

Evergreen High grad Tom Babb suffered a serious spinal cord injury when a wave slammed him head-first into the ocean floor while vacationing in Hawaii with his family.

Babb’s determination and indomitable spirit impressed the staff at Craig Hospital in Denver, where he spent time in rehab after the accident in December 2015.

“His level of determination has been unsurpassed,” said speech pathologist Karen Engstrom. 

In the fall, Babb returned to the University of Kansas to continue his studies. He has had plenty of help from his fraternity brothers at Beta Theta Pi. They converted a room in the fraternity house for his use, and they help him with daily activities.

Family members have been grateful for the outpouring of support from the community, which stood by them throughout the year.

Evergreen man found guilty in shooting of bear cubs

Daniel C. Williams, the man who shot two bear cubs in Evergreen in September 2015, was convicted by a jury in November on related charges after a four-day trial and nearly eight hours of deliberations.

Williams was found guilty of one felony — illegal discharge of a firearm — and two misdemeanors: illegal possession of wildlife and animal cruelty. The jury found him not guilty of two misdemeanor counts of hunting black bears out of season and one misdemeanor count of shooting from a public road.

At the time, deputy district attorney Steve Jensen said the trial was “hard fought” and that he was pleased with the outcome.

Emotions ran high throughout the proceedings, with supporters of the prosecution sharing memories and pictures of the bears and Williams’ supporters packing the benches behind the defense and surrounding him when outside the courtroom.

Following a pre-sentencing investigation, Williams will be sentenced Jan. 23. He could face prison, community service and significant fines.

Table puts Evergreen in record books

The mountain community came together in September to create the longest picnic table ever — at 810 feet, 8 and 3/8 inches. The Guinness Book of World Records confirmed the feat.

Leadership Evergreen and several other local organizations took almost 18 months to plan the effort after the Leadership Evergreen class of 2015 chose it as a class project.

Of the 136 total picnic tables in Buchanan Park making up the world’s longest one, more than 70 were sponsored by local businesses and organizations. It took more than 25 volunteers two days to set up all the tables, which had to be rearranged so they were in one continuous connection.

The previous record holder was a table measuring 694 feet, 11.35 inches in Muenster, Germany.

In October, Leadership Evergreen representatives presented a share of the proceeds from the event to four mountain area charities — Evergreen Christian Outreach, LifeBridge, Loaves & Fishes and the Seniors’ Resource Center. Each charity received $3,000.

The organizations said the money would go toward local food banks, emergency shelter, holiday meals for families in need, and other needs.

Denver Archdiocese wins controversial rezoning for retreat near Pine Junction

The third time was a charm for the Archdiocese of Denver, which was successful in December in its quest for rezoning for a Catholic retreat near Pine Junction, but not before attending multiple meetings and listening to several hours of contentious testimony from neighbors.

The archdiocese first appeared before Jeffco’s county commissioners in September seeking approval for a rezoning request to construct the Emmaus Catholic Retreat & Conference Center on a 247-acre parcel southwest of U.S. 285 and Elk Creek Road, east of Elk Creek Elementary School and south of Shaffers Crossing. The proposed project encompassed the construction of three structures beginning with a 55-foot-tall, 80,000-square-foot adult recreation center. A chapel and youth center, together totaling 35,000 square feet, would be added over time.

But approval of the rezoning request was twice delayed in September and October after residents of neighboring subdivisions packed the county commission hearing room at the Jeffco courthouse to voice concerns about the project, namely losing pristine open space, increased congestion on U.S. 285, water-quality issues and adverse impacts to local wildlife. But the chief argument was based on a perceived increased risk of wildfire that could result from a transient population that might not understand the dangers posed by a flicked cigarette butt or a smoldering campfire. Elk Creek Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin also opposed the project, arguing that his already cash-strapped, all-volunteer department didn’t have the capacity to fight a fire in a building as tall as the adult recreation center.

The Jeffco commissioners ultimately sided with the religious institution, citing the archdiocese’s plans to create an extensive wildfire mitigation plan, construct a 300-gallon cistern for fighting fires — the water from which would also be available to neighboring HOAs — and a promise that about 80 percent of the parcel would remain open space.

Al ‘Buffalo Bill’ Huffman dies

Longtime Evergreen resident and well-known Buffalo Bill impersonator Earl “Al” Huffman died in September at age 84.

Described by his family as “a loving dad, a favorite brother, and a good grandpa and great-grandpa,” Huffman was a staple of the mountain community as “Buffalo Bill.” He also was a charter member of the Evergreen Elks Lodge.

Huffman moved to Colorado from his hometown of Grand Island, Neb., and enjoyed living the life of a “modern-day frontiersman,” his family members said.

Huffman made appearances around the world as Buffalo Bill, helping to inaugurate local landmarks; visiting several countries; meeting dozens of presidents, musicians, and movie stars; and even promoting Buffalo Bill tortilla chips.

Local lore has it that Huffman first donned buckskin and appeared as William Cody in the Evergreen Rodeo Parade. That led to years of appearances as the famous scout, bison hunter and showman from America’s Old West.

In addition to helping to found the Elks Lodge, Huffman had a hand in developing the Evergreen Rodeo Grounds and frequently made appearances at Hiwan Homestead and the Buffalo Bill Museum on Lookout Mountain.

Huffman also amassed a collection of antiques and cowboy-themed items. He owned the largest collection of horse bits in the country, his family said, adding that he wanted the collection and the knowledge of it to be preserved.

Leonard elected to HD 25 seat, then held in contempt in divorce case

After being appointed in state House District 25 when Jon Keyser stepped down to make an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, Tim Leonard was elected to the seat in November, winning a tight race with Democrat Tammy Story.

But Leonard was in the news the next month for a less-positive development, when a Jeffco magistrate sent him to jail for 14 days for two counts of contempt of court in his divorce case with his ex-wife, Monica.

Leonard was accused by his ex-wife of violating her rights as the sole educational decision-maker when earlier in 2016 he attempted to opt out one of their children from state and federal standardized testing and another from using a school-provided iPad.

Leonard and his attorney argued that he had considered these decisions minor, based on an attorney friend’s legal advice, and said a jail sentence might interfere with his duties as a legislator.

Leonard was released from the Jeffco jail after serving the full 14 days. The legislative session begins Jan. 11.

Cleanup efforts

Outdoor areas in Evergreen suffering from overuse and abuse were the beneficiaries of community cleanup efforts last year.

The Elk Meadow off-leash dog park, which sees about 4,000 visits a week, faces a growing list of health and safety concerns, including high levels of E. coli in the creek and vegetation loss.

By September, the problems had become so evident that Jeffco Open Space used National Public Lands Day as an opportunity to clean up the park. Volunteers removed more than 420 pounds of dog waste that day, and several other cleanup days removed another 500 pounds of waste.

Jeffco Open Space will host a series of public meetings to inform dog owners about steps they can take to ensure the park remains open.

Similarly, members of Evergreen Rotary and other volunteers worked to clean up illegal dumping along Squaw Pass Road. Volunteers who live in the area said the dumping worsened after the Evergreen transfer station closed in September 2014.

In late October, more than 20 volunteers hauled down hundreds of pounds of trash — doors, cabinets, refrigerators, televisions, couches, a hot tub and carpeting, among other things.

The volunteers also found a recently used fire pit, several bullet casings and broken glass near the road.

A long-term goal, the volunteers agreed, is to place signs along the road to discourage people from dumping, littering, camping and building illegal fires. The group also hopes to continue the cleanup efforts.

Contact reporter Corinne Westeman at 303-350-1043 or cwesteman@evergreenco.com, and follow her on Twitter @cwesteman.

Contact report Deb Hurley Brobst at 303-350-1041 or deb@evergreenco.com.