Church wins right to build in Pitkin County
ASPEN, Colorado ” Despite the fierce protest of some 20 Emma residents Wednesday, Pitkin County commissioners bowed to a legal settlement that will usher in a new 15,000-square-foot church along Highway 82.
The settlement overturns a 2005 Pitkin County board decision to deny a building to the Grace Church of the Roaring Fork Valley, whose more than 100 parishioners have met in rented space in the Eagle County Community Center in El Jebel since the church was founded in 2002.
Commissioners denied the original application for a 8,600-square-foot church on the 18.5-acre parcel in Emma, claiming the plan violated the land-use code and the downvalley master plan and did not fit with the rural nature of the area, county attorney John Ely said.
Church officials then filed a federal lawsuit claiming the board violated their civil rights and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious institutions.
County commissioners spent three years, countless hours and sleepless nights searching for alternatives to a situation Commissioner Jack Hatfield called “gut-wrenching” and the toughest decision he’s made in 23 years of public service.
“It’s horrible,” Commissioner Michael Owsley said after Wednesday’s decision. “You feel that you’re letting down the people who put their trust in you.”
The dispute was scheduled for trial before U.S. District Court Judge Richard P. Matsch on Jan. 14, but the settlement puts the matter to rest.
“We would not be successful at the trial court level,” County Attorney John Ely said.
Other areas, including Boulder County, face similar challenges from religious groups, Ely said. The issue has not yet gone as high as the U.S. Supreme Court, Ely said, but no one has won a case against a church.
“You can’t deny people a right to practice their faith,” said Robert A. Lees, a Denver attorney representing Grace Church. “They could not do anything else, otherwise we could go at them for a lot of damages.”
As part of the settlement, church officials abandoned plans for a creek-side chapel, and offered the county a one-acre parcel at an undetermined price (over $350,000) to be used as a fuel facility and parking for access to the historic Emma Schoolhouse and Rio Grande Trail.
The church parcel is protected by a 10-year covenant from further building, according to the settlement, but church officials will be bound by the county land-use code in perpetuity.
The county agreed to pay attorney’s fees and any costs of the federal case as part of the settlement.
“Certainly I’m pleased with the decision, and certainly I hope over time people will give us a chance and we can be a good neighbor to that area,” said Terry Maner, pastor of Grace Church, by phone after the decision.
More than 20 Emma residents, however, urged the county board to deny the settlement and fight.
“Disgusting,” Dick Bird said as he left the meeting room. “These people paid no attention to what people in the area want.”
Next, attorneys for both sides will negotiate damages, likely the cost of construction delay for the church, Lees said.