Monday, August 03, 2009
ASPEN, Colo. — The Silver Lining Ranch has often been a scene of anguish over the years, and also of hope. Since the late 1990s, thousands of children with cancer have come here to experience a few weeks of outdoor life in a beautiful spot through a group co-founded by the former tennis star Andrea Jaeger, who became an Anglican Dominican nun after leaving the professional tennis circuit.
But these days anguish appears to be winning out. The Little Star Foundation, which runs the ranch, is teetering on the brink of collapse, Ms. Jaeger said, through that most earthbound and profane of things: real estate.
The 6.5 acres that the ranch sits on, just outside downtown Aspen, was donated in 1994 and is now immensely valuable in this enclave of superwealth. But a proposed sale of the property, intended to bolster the foundation’s finances and create a long-term endowment, has backfired.
Neighbors of Ms. Jaeger, who is president of the foundation, say the proposed sale, for $13.5 million — to the Chabad Jewish Community Center, a synagogue transplanted to the central Rockies from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn nine years ago — is illegal, citing covenants of a homeowners’ association that allow the property to be used only as a private home or for treating terminally ill children. Despite the covenants, the Aspen City Council unanimously approved the sale in May.
Most of Little Star’s operations have ceased and many employees have not been paid for months. The loans that were supposed to support the foundation until the sale have come up short.
The result is a stew of recrimination, entrenchment and talk of lawsuits. High-minded goals and spirituality have given way to lawyers and money, which Aspen has in abundance.
Ms. Jaeger, 44, who was briefly the No. 2 women’s tennis player in the world before injuries forced her from the game at age 19, spoke in tones of nostalgia and grief as she recited from memory the odyssey of the children who had come through her care.
In an interview in the silent main building (most of the foundation’s work was transferred in 2006 to a property in Durango, Colo., in preparation for a sale, and to reduce costs), she spoke of the hurdles of illness and life, and — all too often — death, that the children faced. She ran her fingers down the hand-painted tiles left behind on a wall in the recreation room and spoke of their memories and dreams: a relapse and decline, a first experience riding a horse, a hope of living long enough to attend college.
“I don’t think they said, ‘I’m going to wake up today and destroy thousands of kids’ lives because I want to choose my neighbors,’ ” Ms. Jaeger said, referring to members of the homeowners’ association. But the blocked contract is having that effect, she said, as children are turned down for help and programs are cut.
One member of the five-family homeowners’ association agreed that the results of the standoff were lamentable. But the member, Peter Gerson, said Ms. Jaeger was entirely at fault for entering into a contract in violation of property covenants.
“It’s an unfortunate situation, but the Silver Lining Ranch people brought it upon themselves,” said Mr. Gerson, who like all the owners lives far enough away, across a private open space of woods and fields, that the ranch buildings can barely be seen, if at all.
At the City Council hearings, the homeowners’ association also raised concerns about a sale to Chabad on grounds that a new use would increase traffic and noise problems on Ute Avenue, where the Silver Lining Ranch has its driveway — even though no other members of the group other than the ranch even use that road to reach their homes.
As for having Chabad as a neighbor, Mr. Gerson said he would be for it; the rabbi who directs the center, Mendel Mintz, is a friend, he said. But Mr. Gerson added that the covenants allowed only the two approved uses on the property and that Chabad did not fit.
“We’re powerless to do anything,” Mr. Gerson said.
The president of the homeowners’ association, Thomas P. Reagan, said of the land covenant: “It was meant to be extremely restrictive, and the proposed use does simply not fit the allowed use.”
Some people in town, including a former City Council member who supported the sale to Chabad, point out that the homeowners’ association was not powerless and amended the covenants earlier this year after the contract between the foundation and Chabad had been signed but before the Council’s vote to approve the sale.
The conference call to amend the covenants took place in January without Ms. Jaeger’s participation, and the homeowners approved language that would “clarify” the original intent of the covenants — that only terminally ill children or market-based private housing were allowed on Lot 5, the ranch property.
“They probably didn’t like the Silver Lining Ranch use either, but they had to put up with it,” said Jack Johnson, who served on the Council for four years before being defeated in an election in May.
Mr. Johnson said he thought the association’s goal was to get a private homeowner on the land. “If they continue to bully and block,” he said, “there’s no doubt of their intentions.”
Rabbi Mintz said that until the legal cloud was lifted, he could not close on the sale without exposing the community center to liability. He said he had seen no evidence of anti-Semitism, only the expression of wealth.
“It’s part of dealing with very affluent people who are used to having things go their way,” he said in an interview at the group’s downtown Aspen community center.
But as Ms. Jaeger readily admits, she also had a clear financial motive. Some people say she may have undermined support for her cause by having tried to do the same thing a few years ago that it appears the homeowners’ group wants to do now — shifting the property back to a private, higher-value use.
She initially tried to sell the ranch to a family for $24 million, which would have gone a long way to building Little Star’s endowment, she said in the interview. But the City Council denied permission, saying the best use of the land was for nonprofit community use. That reduced the value of the land and buildings almost in half and led to the negotiations with Chabad.
Mayor Mick Ireland of Aspen said he thought the newly restrictive covenants were an effort to “straitjacket” the city into allowing a change back into private use as a solution to everyone’s problems — more money for Ms. Jaeger’s foundation and the dropping of objections from the neighbors. Mr. Ireland said that would not happen.“As a community, we want to encourage places of worship and kids’ facilities; that’s what communities do,” he said. “It’s not our job to make a property more marketable.”