The Vacation Homeowner Who Swam One Lap Too Far
When a millionaire's pool splashed onto public land, the waves were capped with class tension
Multimillionaire Melvin Simon says it was just an honest mistake. He built a swimming pool next to his huge stone vacation home here. After the pool construction was finished, a corner of it was found to be on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Judging from letters to the two Aspen newspapers, and comments on the streets, most local Aspenites thought it was a dishonest mistake. Mr. Simon, they say, knew better because he is well-versed in the need for permits and other legalities of owning property.
After all, Simon is a major land developer. The Mall of America in Minneapolis, now the largest mall in the country, is one of his projects. And he also owns the Indiana Pacers of the National Basketball Association.
People doubted the innocence of his mistake because Simon twice tried to buy 4.75 acres next to his house from the BLM. Twice the BLM said no because part of the land is the Hunter Creek trailhead, and near a mountain-bike trail.
Normally, a surveying faux pas - intended or not - doesn't generate such notice. But in small towns around the West, the influx of wealthy "outsiders" seeking a slice of mountain paradise is often met with suspicion. It also tweaks a deep-rooted American sensibility about fairness and class advantage: Does a fat bankroll and CEO nameplate exempt one from the pesky nuts and bolts of life, like obtaining a building permit?
Simon was not available for an interview but has insisted the position of the pool was a mistake. Survey stakes were removed accidentally, and that's why 190 square feet of the pool sloshed onto public land.
The dislocation of the pool was uncovered by Jason Auslander, a reporter for the Aspen Daily News, at a county commissioner's meeting.
"People around here have put up with rich people building things they say are barns, complete with Jacuzzi's and chandeliers," says Mr. Auslander. "And the fact that Mr. Simon built the pool, and did it on public land, this sort of broke the camel's back."
Angry letters flowed to the Aspen Daily News and The Aspen Times. The letter writers charged Simon with outright theft, bilking taxpayers, and throwing his weight around. They hoped he would be denied special treatment that might allow him to tiptoe his way out of trouble and keep the pool.
Jan Kaminski of Steamboat Springs quipped that she was looking for a public place to swim and wanted to know if Simon had also built a cabana on public land - "so we can decide if we need to change [clothes] at home."
It irked people that Simon had built the pool without a permit even after he had asked the county what was required. "It was the concept that he was now asking for forgiveness instead of permission," says Auslander.
Another letter came from the caretaker of the Simon home, who blasted the local media and the town for being inhospitable and too quick to judge a good neighbor.
As it turns out, the pool that created such a splash is on its way to becoming history.
Simon's lawyer, Brooke Petersen, says Mr. and Mrs. Simon decided to remove the pool because "although mistakes were made ... the aggravation in dealing with it, and the anger, just wasn't worth all of the rhubarb that was created."
The Simons "were very hurt and angry that the community didn't want to seem to listen to their side ... and try to create a solution that could work for the benefit of everyone involved," Mr. Petersen says.
By now the Simons know that a demolition permit and a deconstruction plan are required to remove the pool.