(Peter Shelton is on vacation. This is a reprise of a column he wrote in May 1993 for the Telluride Times Journal.)
The visual impact of “the house on the hill,” as it has come to be called here in Ouray County, would be difficult to overstate. It juts out over the valley of the Uncompahgre like a codpiece.
I can see it thrusting above the brow of Log Hill Mesa from my house in Ridgway, which is a good two miles distant. It hovers, Starship-like, above Highway 550 at the lake. And, especially at sunset, when the silhouette stands out against a pale sky, you can’t miss it from just about anywhere, from Ridgway to Cow Creek.
Heck, former county building inspector Max Clark, who approved the project despite its obvious flirtations with county regulation (which require buildings on any highly visible edge to blend with or drop below the natural skyline), admitted in court that he and his wife could see the Sink’s $350,000 protrusion from their house, in Ouray.
Jut so everybody in the courtroom would be clear, County Attorney Richard Tisdel confirmed with Clark the whereabouts of his home, “up above the ski hill in Ouray a good 12 miles from Log Hill.”
When “the house,” which is still not quite finished, reached the point in construction where it became an obvious bone of contention, the county commissioners did exactly what they should have done: notified the Sinks that they were out of compliance and relieved Clark, whom Tisdel perhaps over-gently characterized as “a reluctant regulator,” of his duties.
Correctly believing that they had a strong legal hand, the Sinks, who hail from Georgia, ignored the county’s requests. So, the county sued to try to force them into compliance.
Two weeks ago Judge Hugh Arnold ruled against the county’s motion for a preliminary injunction, saying, in effect, that because the county’s representative, Clark, had passed the project at every stage, he didn’t feel the county could win. At that point the commissioners had no choice but to drop the suit.
So, we’re stuck with the house that hubris built, and with the Sinks, who were, along with their architect and their builder, aware from the beginning that they were pushing the siting envelope but pressed ahead, apparently, for the sake of their own views and without regard for the scenic welfare of the region in general.
There has been some good come out of the fiasco. Judge Arnold, who visited the site in person, found in his ruling that the house definitely violated “the spirit and the letter of the law.” He was appalled. He just didn’t see how, given Clark’s actions, the county could do anything about it now. He also commented that the county’s visual impact regulations appeared eminently enforceable and, in fact, were among the best he had seen.
Attorney Mike Hockersmith, who also argued the case for the commissioners in court, hopes this will be a “rite of passage” for Ouray County. Ninety-five percent of respondents to the county master plan survey said they favored preserving the integrity of the region’s dramatic earth-sky edges. “We took a stand for enforcement,” Hockersmith said. “Maybe we can build on this and go forward.”
The Sinks won, technically speaking. But they shouldn’t congratulate themselves too heartily. They’ve succeeded in stirring up a previously somnambulant populace in the valleys below them, people who now have an in-your-face example of what we all stand to lose.