Dog owners in an affordable-housing community outside of Telluride speak of harassment and discrimination
An affordable-housing community outside of Telluride has disallowed dogs since its inception in 1992 in an effort to protect area wildlife.
Over the last half decade, an increase in emotional support animals has become a source of tension in the community of Lawson Hill, and ESA dog owners are beginning to speak out about what they say is an issue of housing discrimination and disability rights.
Bretley Danner has lived with anxiety throughout her life. During the pandemic, she says it came back in a big way.
“And, it's like an electric wire inside your body going the whole time. I’ve always had that, as a kid even, but it kind of went away as I got older, but when I get anxiety it kind of takes over,” said Danner.
Danner is a property manager in Telluride and has lived in Lawson Hill for the last twenty years.
When her son was going away to college, and her anxiety was resurfacing, Danner spoke with her therapist, who recommended she get an emotional support animal, or an ESA.
“She was like 'I really want you to have a dog when you’re alone and when your son leaves, besides your anxiety that will only be making it worse',” Danner recalled.
“And she’s a little rescue dog and we basically take care of each other.”
In total, there are over 30 registered emotional support dogs in Lawson Hill, and their owners testify to the benefit these dogs bring to their daily lives.
Sofiya Marcheva, a resident of Lawson who deals with anxiety and depression says her therapist recommended she get an ESA dog during a period of life when she was finding it difficult to even get out of bed.
“Because it's a really good way to get you out of the house, exercise, be more social even, so when the therapist mentioned that I brought it to my doctor and she said it was a good idea. The first thing we did was bring it to the HOA,” said Marcheva.
Marcheva reached out to the Lawson Hill Homeowners Association, or HOA, because Lawson has a well known dog restriction.
The restriction dates back to 1991 when Telecam, the developer of the Lawson Hill Planned Unit Development, or PUD, submitted its application to the county.
County Attorney Amy Markwell explains Colorado Parks and Wildlife flagged the area around Lawson Hill as elk territory.
“And their comments and recommendations for wildlife mitigation was that there should be no dogs in the development, and that it should be strictly enforced," she said.
"So the county's approval of that PUD was conditioned on CPW’s recommendation.”
In order to receive an exception for an emotional support animal, a resident has to apply to the HOA Board for an exception, a process which includes a letter from their doctor.
If the application is accepted, having an ESA dog comes with a long list of terms and conditions.
Danner and Marcheva say when they first received their dogs they were surprised by the nature of some of the rules, including the requirement they reapply each year.
“Every year I keep having to prove that I have anxiety, and every time they make me prove anxiety, I have another anxiety attack!” said Danner.
“They clearly have no idea what anxiety is and haven’t done any research. If you have an anxiety dog, the only person who can walk it to go to the bathroom is the person with anxiety, so if I’m a single mom, and I'm at work, my son can't go out and walk my dog?”
Beyond the rules themselves, dog owners say they face confusion over their enforcement, and over where exactly they are allowed to walk their dog.
Even during the course of reporting this story, some of the rules have changed.
During COVID, Marcheva had difficulty getting a health center appointment because of high hospital caseloads.
This delayed her ability to see a doctor and fill out the application.
She says that even after speaking with the HOA and the county about the delay, she received a $4500 fine.
Dog owners also speak of intimidation, harassment, and threatening behavior from other Lawson residents.
“We’ve been harassed numerous times, to the point that I was getting anxiety just by the thought that I am going to walk on the street," said Marcheva.
"Every time a car drives by, I am looking for my phone because I want to be able to record if someone harasses me because it’s happened so many times. People will just verbally assault you, scream profanities at you, take your picture.”
Dog owners acknowledge they have good relationships with many of their neighbors, but Danner says these incidents happen often enough to have led to a culture of fear amongst dog owners.
“All the dogs owners, we’re afraid. We all walk down with our heads down because you don't want to look at a car, because you never know who might drive by and flip you off and scream at you,” she said.
Melissa Ramponi, who lives in Lawson with her family and has had an ESA dog named Lily for the last several years, says she has been cussed out, received intimidating emails, and felt she and her daughter specifically were under surveillance.
“So us females get one response, and the males get very little confrontation, because, you know, Dad’s a big guy,” said Ramponi.
“But there are people who have been terribly cussed out, just terribly. And they, she, the one I'm thinking of, just can't come out with it, but it's been terrible.”
Last year, Marcheva began to research protections for Americans living with disabilities, and eventually filed a discrimination complaint against the HOA.
This led to an investigation by the Colorado Civil Rights Division.
Last December, the investigation concluded that “there is sufficient evidence to support Marcheva’s claims of discrimination.”
The investigation found that Marcheva, has faced “processes unreasonably conditioned, and subjected her to unequal conditions based on her disability.”
The HOA leadership declined to be interviewed for this story, and stated: “It would be inappropriate to speak about a civil complaint that has not been resolved through the process laid out yet.”
Separately, San Miguel County says they are surprised by the decision, but will work with the Colorado Civil Rights Division to make any needed changes.
Any outright change to the dog restriction in Lawson will need to come from the community itself.
Markwell says Aldasoro Ranch, located above Lawson on the Deep Creek Mesa, originally had a similar ban in place, but the community commissioned a new wildlife study in 2015 and eventually reversed that restriction.
Markwell says Lawson Hill would have to go through a similar process.
“It’s now on the community to decide whether or not they want to move forward and ask for an amendment to the PUD or not," said Markwell.
“The county doesn’t really have much input in that process, now it's completely within the community to do that.”
Lawson Hill has grown significantly since its inception and is now home to roughly 160 residences, a gas station, commercial areas, and substantial vehicular and human traffic.
The question of how that growth has affected wildlife presence in the area would need to be settled by a new CPW study.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife does not tag animals or monitor herd populations in the area, but District Wildlife Manager Mark Caddy says elk still tend to move out of the Prospect Basin, across the valley floor near Lawson, and up to the mesa around Aldasoro.
Caddy says that while elk are still in the area, the threat posed by dogs is not specific to Lawson Hill but is a general concern throughout the Telluride Area.
“Most of it is just a general concern that comes with living in an area with minimal movement corridors for animals,” said Caddy.
“The big thing we always worry about up there is, one, dogs chasing animals, but also [dogs] being chased by other critters that move through, such as bobcats and mountain lions and bears. Those animals could kill a domestic dog, easily. You know, those are some of the issues we run into everywhere where we have humans and their pets.”
Marcheva says whatever happens with her case specifically, her main hope is ESA dog owners have some peace of mind, and are treated with respect.
“I would like for people with disabilities, or people with disadvantages, to be allowed to live their lives. And the harassment of people with disabilities should not happen, anywhere,” she said.
Conciliation between Marcheva, the HOA, and the County is still in its early stages.
This story from KOTO was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.