They struck first at Bigfork’s Bear Hollow development on May 17. A few days later, they hit another development, Tamarack Heights at Meadow Lake. Less than a week after that, they hit Cedar Pointe Estates in Columbia Falls.
The crimes were the same: surveying posts pulled out of the ground and scattered; black spray paint on signs advertising the developments, crossing out Realtors’ names or defacing lot maps; and the slogan, “Stop Sprawl,” accompanying the letters “ASSD.” A three-page manifesto left behind identifies the vandals as a group – if there is more than one person involved – calling itself “Americans Stopping Sprawling Development.”
Cedar Pointe developer Don Gatzke estimates the damage at somewhere between $5,000 and $20,000.
“I figure as soon as I get it fixed up again, they’ll do it again,” Gatzke said. “Why not? There’s nothing to stop them.”
“These are eco-terrorists,” he added. “They are highly educated.”
The manifesto Gatzke found includes ASSD’s mission statement and the reasoning behind the vandalism:
“ASSD is comprised of concerned citizens who feel the sprawling development all across the country is detrimental to our country and our species as a whole,” the manifesto reads. “We believe in the idea of stopping sprawl to such an extent that we have and will perform the action of vandalizing sprawling developments.”
The manifesto goes on to define sprawl and call it “one of the greatest issues facing our society” that will leave few places unpopulated as the world population grows.
“Sprawl is indicative of a society that values only money, and the easy way out,” the ASSD manifesto reads. “We must fight to stop it.”
But in the following pages, the manifesto reads with the incongruously positive tone of any other kind of environmental group newsletter advocating social change through legal means. The last page urges the reader – who is presumably the victim of ASSD’s vandalism – to get informed, get involved in local government and write to Congress to stop sprawling developments.
In an e-mail response to an inquiry sent by the Beacon to the contact address on the manifesto, an unidentified spokesman for ASSD wrote, “The point of the vandalism was to get people’s attention.”
“The only way to stop sprawling development is by informing people who can in turn go to their government and say: ‘This is not what we want. We want smart growth policies implemented in our communities,’” the ASSD e-mail read. “The vandalism may be a bit extreme, but we felt it was necessary in order to get the word out.”
Flathead County Sheriff’s Detective Kirby Adams said the vandalism has caused damage expensive enough to be considered felony criminal mischief.
“This is pretty serious for whoever is committing these crimes,” Adams said, adding that the Montana Department of Justice’s criminal investigation division is looking into the organization to determine whether the group exists elsewhere in the country and if it is a group at all. Adams’ own research, he said, has turned up “nothing that I can substantiate so far that says they have operated anywhere else.”
In the meantime, Gatzke is angry that, in addition to the property damage he has suffered, he intentionally developed Cedar Pointe Estates in a way that does not contribute to urban sprawl: with high density lots near downtown Columbia Falls on reclaimed land; avoiding the use of sod; limiting the trees that could be logged; and providing ample open space available to the public.
“My development is based on a green development,” Gatzke said. “It’s all these things they claim that they want, that I did.”
Gatzke also noted that the vandals targeted only signs and structures that would cost him money, while city street signs were left untouched. Barb Riley, the real estate broker for Tamarack Heights, said her development was targeted similarly with spray-painting and surveying posts ripped up.
But the construction equipment and foundation of a home being built nearby was left untouched. Nor were any of the more built out phases of the Meadow Lake subdivision vandalized. After paying to survey the lots again, replacing signage and tearing up and pouring new concrete on a section of a roundabout where the paint could not be removed, Riley estimates the damage could be as high as $20,000.
The e-mail to the Beacon by ASSD also said the group would target developers.
“We do not intend to harm any people who have bought lots in the developments we target,” the ASSD e-mail read. “We hold the developer, not the homeowner, responsible for the sprawling development.”
Riley wrote an e-mail, now circulating among Flathead real estate brokers, alerting them to the string of vandalism and calling the acts “eco-terrorism.” But she says realtors are torn about how to handle the problem. On one hand, raising awareness of the vandalism might help the investigation, yet publicizing these crimes could dissuade people from moving to the Flathead if they think their homes are being targeted.
“You want to protect the developments themselves,” Riley said, “and not bring a negative to the neighborhood where they’re developing.”
The Montana chapter of the Sierra Club is also seeking to distance itself from the vandalism. The “Further Reading” section of the ASSD manifesto links to a number of anti-sprawl Web sites, including a section of the Sierra Club’s site on sprawl.
Bob Clark, associate representative for the Sierra Club’s Missoula office, said his organization disavows environmental activism like ASSD’s, and he has never heard of the group.
“The Sierra Club is very strict about working within the bounds of the law,” Clark said. “We would obviously never endorse any illegal activity, including vandalism.”
In its e-mail, ASSD said informational fliers about sprawling development will be “popping up in communities all over the place.”
Detective Adams asks anyone with information about the vandalism to contact the Sheriff’s Department at 758-5610, or to call CrimeStoppers at 752-8477. A reward is available for information leading to an arrest.
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