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Don't fence them in ...

Actor Rick Schroder and his West Slope neighbors lock horns

By Joe Garner, Rocky Mountain News
July 5, 2005

GLADE PARK - Two locks secure the thick chain that holds the steel gate closing the mountain road.

The brass lock requires a combination, and the chrome lock opens with a key.

The heavy gate, and the fence standing erect on either side of it, bar entry to Mesa Mood Ranch, actor Rick Schroder's New Age-sounding retreat 25 miles southwest of Grand Junction. No-trespassing signs, posted at regular intervals, warn off the uninvited.

In an era when celebrities seclude themselves in grand enclaves throughout the Rocky Mountain West, including David Letterman's Montana ranch and Julia Roberts' New Mexico hacienda, Schroder has announced he's pulling up stakes in western Colorado and offering his 16,000-acre ranch for sale for $29 million - nearly 10 times what he paid for it 15 years ago.

The code of the pioneer West and current celebrity fixation both play a role in how the one-time child star has found himself the target of a rancorous lawsuit brought by neighbors, who own an adjoining ranch on Pinyon Mesa.

At issue in this Western Slope legal drama is access to land, which is as bitter a dispute in the New West as it was in the Old West.

Unwelcome role

The cast features Rick Schroder, 35, who debuted as a towheaded 8-year-old in the 1979 remake of the movie The Champ. From 12 to 17, then-Ricky Schroder starred in the television series Silver Spoons. As he grew older, he changed his name from Ricky to Rick and took roles that challenged his range as an adult actor.

After three years as Detective Danny Sorenson on the television series NYPD Blue, Schroder is a headliner on the series Strong Medicine on the Lifetime cable TV channel .

He plays Dr. Dylan West, described in publicity releases as "a women's health specialist and the charming new partner at Rittenhouse Hospital."

But the handsome, blond actor is cast as the villain by his Western Slope neighbors, who filed a lawsuit against him in November 2003.

'Spoiled movie brat'

Schroder "is a spoiled movie brat who does not possess a smidgen of the integrity of the man he smears," Grand Junction lawyer Clayton Tipping said in a public letter defending his brother, Ronald Tipping, a Grand Junction businessman.

Ronald Tipping's two ranching partners, Rodney Power and William Patterson, are the other two plaintiffs. Tipping and his wife own companies that supply road and building materials, Power is an insurance agent, and Patterson is a retired orthopedic surgeon.

The three ranch owners allege that Schroder trespassed by regularly using a lakeside road across their property to his, rather than following JS Road, a public road that bisects their ranch. JS Road leads to the locked gate at the boundary of Schroder's Mesa Mood Ranch.

Schroder countered that the previous ranch owner and he had the right to cut across his neighbor's land because they had been doing so for decades, according to Clayton Tipping.

The three local owners also allege that Schroder once cut a lock on their gate to cut across their property to his.

Schroder has countersued, making his own claims against the plaintiffs over access on Pinyon Mesa.

The lawsuit has acquired a sharp personal edge that Clayton Tipping traces back six years to a dispute between the three local ranchers and Schroder over 55 acres where the two ranches come together.

The bitterness between the plaintiffs and the actor also has spilled over to engulf a land swap that Schroder proposed to the Bureau of Land Management five years ago. The plaintiffs are among members of the public who have protested the swap, contending the actor is ripping off taxpayers for more than a half-million dollars. The BLM is looking into the protests before the swap receives final endorsement.

"The lawsuit and the land swap are entangled only because they involve the same people and the same general area," Clayton Tipping said, "but they are not related legally."

The actor and his Grand Junction attorney, Frederick Aldrich, did not respond to telephone messages and e-mails requesting interviews. Similarly, William Prakken, attorney for the three local ranchers, did not respond to requests for comment.

The dispute is in court-ordered mediation after a trial, scheduled last month, was postponed.

"This is about roads, that's what it's all about," Clayton Tipping said in an interview. "It always makes a difference when someone is driving across your property, no matter who it is."

"If I don't get my price, then I won't sell," Schroder told Grand Junction's Daily Sentinel last month, when the trial was postponed.

The actor, who now lives in Arizona most of the time with his wife and four children, said he has in mind potential buyers who could pay his $29 million price.

"The price is not totally out of realistic numbers," said Arnie Butler, a Mesa County real estate appraiser. "It's high, but it's not crazy high."

Butler and several real estate salesmen believe Schroder would set a record for Mesa County ranches if he gets his price.

The conventional wisdom in the community, as sampled at Freeman's Barber Stop, is that Schroder, a Republican who belongs to the National Rifle Association, never really bonded with Grand Junction, though the two would seem a good fit. Grand Junction is a conservative community where hunting is a major element in the economy.

Republican Gov. Bill Owens recognized Schroder as one of Colorado's landowners of the year in 2003, a program started by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. However, barbershop wisdom suspects that Schroder received the honor through the GOP as payback for supporting President Bush.

Neither is there unqualified support at the barbershop for the local owners, who hold title to about 9,500 acres in the vicinity.

"Ricky showed up in our neighborhood one year for Halloween, but you don't see him around much," said Dr. Terry Leever, who was waiting for a haircut.

"Mostly this has been a low-profile issue. It's not been anything that people are talking about."

Greg Freeman, the barber, agreed that the lawsuit rarely rates a mention from customers.

"It seems to me," Freeman said, "that this is a dispute between guys who have way too much money to spend."

Buying seclusion

In the isolation of an earlier Colorado, a stranger arriving on Pinyon Mesa by horseback or Model T may have been a welcome visitor to break the monotony of ranch life, which followed the rhythm of the seasons.

But the Rocky Mountain West is undergoing a cultural shift, said Reeves Brown, executive director of Club 20, the association of western Colorado counties.

What was the monotony of isolation to a pioneer family can be marketed in the 21st century as the attraction of privacy to a newcomer who arrives by private jet expecting to be met by a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

"From Paradise Valley in Montana to Saratoga, Wyoming, to western Colorado, some of the traditional, family ranches are being purchased by nontraditional ranchers," Brown said.

Butler, the Grand Junction real estate appraiser, said most ranch transactions involve longtime ranching families selling to wealthy investors or involve wealthy investors consolidating their holdings.

"These wealthy investors like to fancy themselves gentlemen ranchers," Butler said.

"They love the seclusion they can buy, and being able to say they own 15,000 or 16,000 contiguous acres," he said. "And many of them are outdoors people."

Multimillion-dollar cash transactions occasionally occur, but not so frequently as in the Wall Street boom years of the 1990s, Butler said.

Still, writing a $29 million check to buy Rick Schroder's ranch might give a new owner special bragging rights among star-struck friends, he said.

Brown said wealthy investors change the fabric of a community, partly because their ranch is typically only one of perhaps several residences they occupy in the course of a year. They buy thousands of acres to be isolated from the rest of the community, not to become part of it.

"This is a cultural change going on all across the West," Brown said. "I don't know if it's good or bad, but that's just the way it is.

"One thing we know is that it will never go back to a traditional ranch that depends on the price of pounds of beef or tons of hay. That slice of the West has been transformed forever."

Champ or Chump?

GRAND JUNCTION NEIGHBORS SAY:

• Schroder has trespassed using a lakeside road across property owned by three ranchers to get to his property, rather than following JS Road (2 on the map below).

• Schroder cut a lock on their gate to cut across their property (1 on the map below).

• Schroder is trying to rip off taxpayers for a half-million dollars by proposing a bogus land swap with the Bureau of Land Management.

• The neighbors and Schroder have been arguing since 1999 over the ownership of 55 acres in the area where Schroder's ranch and those of the neighbors come together.

RICK SCHRODER SAYS:

• The previous ranch owner and he had the right to cut across his neighbors' land because they had been doing so for decades.

• Schroder is offering 331 acres of his Mesa Mood Ranch to the BLM for 773 acres of federal land.

• As part of the deal, he has offered to pay $42,000.

• The BLM said in 2003 that the federal land Schroder wants to swap for has little or no public use. In return, the government would get shoreline along the Gunnison River and one-half mile of the Tabeguache Trail.

Famous faces, wide-open spaces

• Julia Roberts: Owns a 40-plus acre ranch outside Taos, N.M., near the community of Arroyo Seco, where she and Danny Moder wed in 2002. She recently bought another 37 acres in Taos County from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

• David Letterman: Owns a 2,700-acre ranch in the Choteau area of Montana. The late-night talk-show host thanked local law enforcement officials in March when they helped uncover a plot to kidnap his son.

• Harrison Ford: Maintains an 800-acre ranch near Jackson Hole, Wyo. Ford gives back to his Western community. He has piloted his helicopter on rescue missions for lost hikers.

[email protected] or 303-892-5421

http://rockymountainnews.com/drmn/state/article/0,1299,DRMN_21_3904076,00.html
 
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