Why We Fight: Lessons of Lawson Hill
by Seth Cagin
Jun 11, 2012 | 2584 views | 3 3 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
NOTE: An earlier version of this commentary, posted at on Monday, June 11, has been revised by the author (in advance of being printed) to incorporate more recognition of the fact that Lawson Hill residents did show appreciation to neighborhood’s founders at the barbecue.

There were two distinct groups of people at the twentieth anniversary barbecue at the Lawson Hill subdivision near Telluride last week.

There were many of the residents of the neighborhood, which consists of deed-restricted affordable housing and a limited commercial district, and there was a group of older individuals who had major roles in creating Lawson Hill two decades ago, and were reassembled – some from out of town – for a reunion. The second group had been invited by the first to their annual neighborhood party, to be celebrated and recognized for having built the neighborhood.

While the residents, by and large, were socializing and enjoying themselves, the veterans appeared to be in an altogether different mood: of reflection and nostalgia, their pride tainted, perhaps, by an undercurrent of bitterness. They looked like war veterans, which in a sense they were.

For many of them, the battle to create Lawson Hill was a life-altering event. Before the War of the Valley Floor, before the Idarado Annexation debacle, the Battle of Lawson Hill was one of modern Telluride’s defining political brawls. The Telluride community tore itself apart over the question of whether or not to approve Lawson Hill, with friendships and careers destroyed in the process.

On the one side were those who argued that without a significant amount of affordable housing, Telluride would quickly erode as a community. Lawson Hill, to them, would be a key part of the solution. On the other side were those who saw Lawson Hill as unwelcome growth in the wrong location, just more development that would contribute to the ruin of Telluride.

My wife, Marta, and I were recent arrivals in Telluride when the Battle of Lawson Hill broke out. We were stunned by the ferocity of the conflict. Twenty-plus years later, we know that Telluride can do this: rip itself to shreds over an issue. We do it over and over.

What was apparent at the Lawson Hill reunion last week is that the passage of time doesn’t always heal the injury done to the people who fight these fights. In fact, it leaves them permanently scarred. Leading one to ask: for what?

Those who fought so hard to ensure that at least some workers and middle class residents could afford to live in Telluride did succeed in creating Lawson Hill. Twenty years later, at the barbecue on the ball fields there, the evidence was all around them. How ironic was it that the residents of the nearby homes couldn’t help but take it all for granted? Few of them were around two decades ago, and they have no idea how brutal it was. They were simply enjoying the beer and barbecue and music in a spectacular setting on a lovely summer afternoon.

The war veterans on the other hand were wondering exactly what they had wrought, and for them this was a profound existential question. To which there is no clear answer.

They built a subdivision in a small mountain town. They were not enriched by it; in fact, many of them paid a high price in lost careers and in being vilified. So that a hundred or so families could afford to live in Telluride.

And here is the sharpest irony: Many of today’s Lawson Hill residents not only have no memory of the political past; they want nothing to do with Telluride’s politics of the present. Lawson Hill residents represent a sizable portion of the region’s middle class, but they can’t vote in Telluride because Lawson Hill is not incorporated into the town. Their voices don’t count in the most important local political decisions. And so the Town of Telluride remains distorted, which careful observers can see as the frequently inane Telluride Town Council decides important issues. Yes, inane, in that council is so often uncomprehending of the fundamental economic issues that affect real working people.

Jim Burleigh, who was the lead planner for Lawson Hill – and was the first person I heard observe that the political division in Telluride is between people who work and people who don’t, which is to say between those whose livelihood depends on the Telluride economy and those whose source of support is independent of Telluride – was and remains a deep social thinker. He always envisioned Lawson Hill as a neighborhood of the town, and did all he could to lay the groundwork for Lawson Hill’s eventual annexation into the town, once legal issues were worked out. This, to Burleigh, was essential to the larger objective of community preservation, because without incorporating the residents of Lawson Hill, the Town of Telluride would be missing a crucial element of a real community, a secure middle class.

Simply put, Telluride would be a far better place, a more sensible place, if Lawson Hill residents had a vote in town elections. Or at least that’s what Burleigh (and I) both believe.

Twenty years ago, we couldn’t anticipate that many Lawson Hill residents would treasure their neighborhood precisely because it is apart from Telluride, which they openly disdain. Who can blame them for shunning the very brand of awful, messy political brawling that was necessary to create their unincorporated refuge in the first place? Which means when brawls come up, they aren’t represented and their side – the local workers’ side – loses. As, indeed, it has lost, for the most part, in the last twenty years.

And so, in a sense, Lawson Hill didn’t preserve community after all. It fostered new divisions.

Burleigh came to the twenty-year reunion thinking he could push the idea of Lawson Hill annexation – to recover his noble vision of what Lawson Hill should have been for Telluride – and he mentioned it to his old friends.

He was asked not to do it, particularly by those who live at Lawson. Please don’t bring up the subject of annexation, he was told. It’s too controversial. Most Lawson residents want nothing to do with it. It’s a battle nobody wants to take on.

So, please, Burleigh was asked, can we please avoid the ugly politics? Let’s enjoy the sunshine and the beer. Let’s just celebrate the twenty-year anniversary of the homes you gave us.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
June 15, 2012
RE: Lawson Hill Anniversary

I didn't feel any bitterness at the Lawson Hill anniversary and reunion. Of course I wasn't on the political front lines back when. Being too outspoken to be allowed out in public, I was happy to be kept in the back room doing planning and design. I was grateful for the gratitude shown to the planning and development team twenty years on. It was wonderful seeing the gang back together. It was a blast walking around looking at the town's features and remembering drawing the lines, down to specific buildings and retaining walls, that led to their construction. And it was gratifying to see how much of nature survived. Personally, I was always opposed to any links with the Telluride Town government. Separate from any utility issues, just linking in name with those idiots added ten to fifteen thousand dollars to a single-family lot price, for nothing in exchange but bureaucratic cooties and arbitrary regulations. I can certainly understand what opposition there may be to annexation, though perhaps the discussion is still in order. If anyone wants to understand what I mean by idiots, try dividing the annual Town budget by the number of residents, or the total cost of the three-mile bike path by the number of feet therein. But, that said, it would still be good to see the working class with more of a vote in the overall valley. Anyway, good times was had.

Bradford Hatcher, assistant planner
June 11, 2012
Good summary of the two sides from all those years ago... But to say that most of Lawson Hill's residents want nothing to do with Telluride's politics seems like an exaggeration. I doubt that a majority of residents had anything to do with asking Burliegh not to bring up the idea again. Did you really talk to a majority of the residents? It's time to bring up the Lawson Hill annexation to Telluride idea again; an honest, open debate with as many Lawson residents as we can get. We haven't had a real discussion about the pros and cons with Lawson residents in many, many years.

June 11, 2012
Hey Joan...

I would be very pleased to learn that there is an openness to annexation at LH. My sense is that there is not the political will to move on this either at LH or on the current Telluride TC. Would love to be proven wrong.

Seth Cagin