Neighborhood gossip erupted into a nasty chain of e-mails recently in a good example of what can happen with neighbors don’t talk and simply spread half-truths and make faulty assumptions.
In this case, the gossip started spreading because El Paso County didn’t aggressively inform residents of the Woodlake subdivision in northern part of the county about plans to build a wetland on a greenbelt it owns among the neighborhood’s 400 or so 5-acre ranchettes. See the FlashEarth.com image below.
The tempest bubbled up after crews began building a nearly one-acre wetland in the 92-acre greenbelt that surrounds the Kiowa Creek drainage.
Three Woodlake residents saw the work and assumed one of their neighbors, Tim Stickel, must be involved. Stickel works for the El Paso County parks department. The wetland was near his house. And he was responsible for convincing Woodlake residents in 2004 to give the greenbelt to the county in his role then as president of the Woodlake Property Owners Association.
Ah ha! Gotcha!
In a series of e-mails, the three accused Stickel of a conflict of interest. They alleged county officials of being complicit. And they tried to scare neighbors by suggesting the crews were building a pond that would drain the wells they rely on for drinking water. Worse, the pond would cause an epidemic of West Nile virus. Worse yet, their children would drown in the pond.
Except for one thing. They were wrong. It was all just neighborhood gossip.
Tom Wolken, who runs county parks, said Stickel was not inovlved in the project. The wetland was created as a favor to the Colorado Department of Transportation, which had ruined a wetland near Baptist Road and Interstate 25 during a construction project. It needed to replace the wetland it ruined and the county offered a piece of its greenbelt.
And they weren’t building a pond. Sure, there was heavy equipment brought in and tons of earth moved. But crews were digging to install a culvert that would act as a sponge and absorb seepage from the ground to feed the wetland. Native grasses, willow trees and vegetation were to be planted. There would be no pond and no wells drilled to tap the aquifer to feed the wetland, Wolken said.
Finally, the idea of a conflict of interest was false, Wolken said. Stickel had not hidden his employment from his neighbors. He had not gained anything personally from the transfer of ownership. And the whole thing had gone to a vote of the neighbors who agreed to give the greenbelt away because the association didn’t have the money to pay for liability insurance and noxious weed control.
In fact, it wasn’t the first time the property had been swapped between the neighborhood and the county. For some reason, the same thing happened 20 years ago. No one seems to want it.
Neighbors Reta League and Darryle Pfauntsch defend the e-mails they wrote and the wild conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios they had suggested.
League said she feared her well might be compromised. And the sight of heavy equipment was shocking without explanation from the county, she said. She just wanted answers.
Pfaunstch defended things his strong suggestion that Stickel was guilty of a conflict. Pfaunstch said he doesn’t like Stickel and remains angry he lost the argument in 2004 to give away the greenbelt. But Pfaunstch insists he was not indulging his personal dislike of Stickel and trying to get him fired.
“I have no regrets,” Pfauntsch said.
Bottom line: the county should have done more than erect a couple of small signs announcing a wetland. If it had communicated better with its neighbors, it could have avoided dealing with a flurry of snarky e-mails and innuendo.