Eminent in Her Domain

Leslie Fields talks about an old book (The Good Earth), her book (Colorado Eminent Domain Practice) and the fundamental nature of owning property

Published in 2008 Colorado Super Lawyers — April 2008

Leslie A. Fields is laughing as she takes the podium before a few dozen people in the Faegre & Benson meeting room on the 32nd floor of the Wells Fargo building. It’s nearing 5 p.m. in early December, and the scene is aglow with the holiday lights of downtown Denver. A colleague watching Fields whispers, “She’s beautiful,” and, indeed, the 50-year-old attorney has always looked years younger than her age. Only those who know the depth of her experience, those who have followed her groundbreaking appellate and Supreme Court cases—including the Telluride land battle that open-space advocates and municipalities around the country are anxiously watching—would not raise an eyebrow at hearing her claim 25 years in the field.

On this evening, her friends, family and colleagues have gathered to celebrate the culmination of that 25 years condensed into one book, Colorado Eminent Domain Practice, which Bradford Publishing asked Fields to write.

“I really wrestled with whether to have this little event,” she says. “It seemed a bit ostentatious to have a book signing for a text book in an area of the law that some would consider rather obscure.”

But, she jokes, what better way to celebrate the Christmas spirit than through a book that talks about the seizure of property by the government?

She continues in the manner of a stand-up comedian. “But seriously, why did I write the book? For the first time, since I’ve been practicing in this area, eminent domain is not just a topic for nerdy lawyers. The public actually seems genuinely interested in this topic. Just the other day, I was talking to Oprah Winfrey, who’s going to have me on her show next year.”

A few people in the audience cheer and applaud.

“I’m kidding,” Fields tells them. “The public is not that crazy about the topic.”

Actually, there are eminent domain cases that the public pays attention to in this state. Fields should know. She’s worked on them.

Fields was just a kid when she first started thinking about the importance of having roots and a home. Her father was in the military, and she grew up in Italy, Germany and bases all around the United States. “I remember envying kids who grew up and lived in the same place,” she says. “I remember feeling like we were always having to leave right when I got to know a place.”

As her father neared retirement and as she entered college, the family planned to move to Washington state, and on the way they stopped in Denver to visit relatives. Fields was so impressed with the city and the University of Denver that she stayed there to finish her undergraduate degree, then stayed on for law school.

Upon graduation, she joined Gorsuch, Kirgis, Campbell, Walker and Grover. Assigned to the municipal law group, she acted as an assistant city attorney for Lakewood on a number of land issues. She’d been practicing in that capacity for a few years when Joseph Montano walked into her office and asked if she wanted to work on an eminent domain case with him. “I remember feeling like I had finally met my calling,” Fields says. “Trying that case made all the difference.”

The chance to work with Montano didn’t hurt either. He was already one of the leading eminent domain lawyers in the state, having been responsible, as the state’s chief highway counsel, for acquiring the rights-of-way for nearly all of Colorado’s major interstates. When he went into private practice, he was one of the first Hispanic partners in a major corporate law firm—an achievement that spoke to Fields as an African-American woman in a sea of white males.

For the next 17 years, she would work with and learn from Montano while representing owners whose property rights were taken in order to build major projects like the Denver International Airport. In 1985, the two joined Faegre & Benson; three years later, Fields made partner.

When Montano retired in 1998, Fields took his place as perhaps the leading eminent domain lawyer in the state. Montano is proud of his protégée. “The thing about her is she’s tenacious,” he says. “And she’s got a great sense of humor. Judges like her. I ran into a judge the other day who said he had been involved in a trial that Leslie was involved in. He said there were four lawyers on the other side. Leslie walked in all by herself, and all these other lawyers got to speak first. And then Leslie got up and he said she tore them apart one at a time.”

Montano never wrote a book because, he says half-jokingly, he didn’t want to educate the other side. Fields’ husband Jeff Howard—a production designer who retired early from his career in Hollywood to be a stay-at-home dad—says his wife’s book is indicative of the impact she seeks to have in the field. “You don’t go through the effort to do this without having a deep conviction for what you can contribute,” he says. “That’s what this book is: a reflection of her desire to contribute and give back.”

“She’s just a great person with a huge heart,” adds Jack Sperber, Fields’ partner for the last 14 years. “She’s an extremely hard worker and she’s developed a very sophisticated understanding of this area of the law.

“Representing so many private property owners like we do, you really are dealing with people that have a lot of emotion tied up into their own house or own property being taken. I think she never lost sight of that aspect.”

You might even say she knows what it’s like to be forced to leave a place just as she got to know it.

To understand Fields’ practice, you have to understand how she sees eminent domain cases.

“What I attempt to do is make sure the process is fair both to the private landowner and to government entities,” she says. “Because clearly the government has the authority under the law to condemn property. It’s a power that has created nearly every major public project we have: Denver International Airport, the Colorado Convention Center, Coors Field, all of the major highways. The important thing to focus on is to make sure those landowners that had to give up their land had a fair process, the right to be able to maximize just compensation, and the right to be able to object if they felt the power was being abused.”

It’s extremely rare to prove to a court that a government agency has abused its power of condemnation, but Fields has done it—three times.

In Denver West Metropolitan District v. Geudner, which went up to the Colorado Court of Appeals in 1989, a special district sought to condemn part of Paul Geudner’s land in order to relocate a drainage way onto his property. Geudner suspected the district’s leaders had ulterior motives. Fields says, “We took a lot of depositions in discovery and learned that the same people who were running the district were also private developers, and as private developers they had entered into a real estate transaction with the Jefferson County School District to sell the school district a large tract of land. The only problem was this tract of land had a drainage facility going through it, and it was a condition of selling the property that they remove that drainage way off of the property being sold.

“It was one of the first cases where the court found that this was not a proper public purpose,” Fields adds. “There was bad faith involved and they could not condemn the property.”

Fields was able to again overturn a special district’s authority to condemn in a 2002 case involving a proposed tunnel near Black Hawk. The district wanted her client’s property for core testing and drilling. “Again through discovery, we were able to determine that this project was very speculative, that there were a number of other projects being studied, a whole slew of permits that still had to be made.” She argued that it was too premature a project to condemn property for, and the trial and appeals courts agreed.

More recently, Fields represented the owners of an office park, Columbine Professional Plaza, in a case that would draw protesters and press before going to the Colorado Supreme Court. Columbine was an office building in Arvada that had an adjacent lake as its major amenity, and workers and local residents would walk and picnic there. Across the lake, the Arvada Urban Renewal Authority was trying to lure Wal-Mart to take over a shopping area. But, says Fields, “There wasn’t sufficient area for these large parking areas that Wal-Mart needs, so they came up with a plan to fill in the lake and put parking on it.”

Fields objected on behalf of Columbine, arguing that this was not a proper exercise of the power of eminent domain. When she lost at the trial court level, she decided to try something unique. “We asked the court to stay its decision five days while we petitioned the [Colorado] Supreme Court to see if it would intervene,” Fields says. “Usually in a condemnation case you have to wait until the entire case is over if you have challenges and then you have to appeal before the Court of Appeals and then if the court rules against you, you can petition the Supreme Court. That could take years.”

Fields instead petitioned the Supreme Court immediately, and an extraordinary writ was granted. “It’s called extraordinary because it’s pretty extraordinary that the court would intervene at that level. Within days of filing our briefs, the court said it was going to take the case. In record time, I mean in a matter of months, it had issued a very strong decision that this was an improper use of condemnation power.

“That’s the rewarding part of what I do: when you take a gamble and you fight for what you think is right and ultimately the courts agree with your position.”

Fields is still waiting to learn whether the court will agree with her position on the biggest case of her career: Telluride. In January 2008, after approximately eight years representing the town in its bid to acquire land for open space, Fields gave oral arguments before the Colorado Supreme Court.

Just outside the Telluride city limits stand 560 gorgeous acres, surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges. The property, called the Valley Floor, is owned by the San Miguel Valley Corporation. For years, the town has tried to acquire the Valley Floor but its offers have been rejected by the company, which believed it could make more money developing the land, and several years ago the city filed a condemnation action. The company challenged the town’s authority to condemn on several grounds and lost. Then a valuation trial, which was moved to a neighboring county, found the property to be worth $50 million. The amount was so high that Telluride officials thought they might have to give up on the land, but a grass-roots effort raised every dime.

During the course of the litigation, San Miguel successfully lobbied the legislature to pass a measure precluding the town’s power to condemn property outside its boundaries for open space. Fields’ position is that Telluride’s power to condemn the land is derived from Article XX of the state constitution, and thus cannot be abridged by a state statute.

“We’ll see what the Supreme Court does,” she says.

Sitting in her corner office overlooking downtown, Fields says she’s reached the point in her career where she gets to be selective; she takes only cases that deeply interest her. She keeps a pair of old boots in the trunk of her car because she never knows when a new property will beckon.

“Here’s one I may have to go to bat for,” she says, nodding toward a painted landscape hanging above her desk. It’s lush green with rocky plateaus. “Have you ever seen a more beautiful piece of property? You can almost see John Wayne riding his horse through it.”

The painting is of the JE Canyon Ranch, part of the 400,000 acres the U.S. Army has considered acquiring to expand its Pinon Canyon training site. “This is certainly a landowner I would fight for,” she says. “Look at what is being lost. It’s what the Old West is about.”

For Fields, the at-risk ranches—passed down through generations—bring to mind stories like Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth about a poor Chinese farmer’s bond to the land. “It’s one of the classics about the importance of land in the family,” she says. “He told his sons, ‘Always keep the land, always keep the land,’ and at the end of the book he’s an old crippled man and his two sons are standing over his shoulder, ready to sell it as soon as he dies.

“It sounds a little dramatic, but that’s what people feel about their property. Sometimes it’s hard. I have landowners that get very emotional and you have to hold their hand, let them know that they’re not alone, that this has happened before, that we’ll get through it, and that if I can do nothing more for you, hopefully I can maximize the amount of just compensation.

“It’s such a great area because you get down to the basics. There’s nothing more fundamental than owning property.” 

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