Garfield County commissioners question GOCO loan that helped facilitate Sweetwater Lake purchase
Garfield County commissioners contend the Great Outdoors Colorado program may have overstepped its bounds in providing a loan that helped secure the public acquisition of Sweetwater Lake last year.
It’s one of the latest questions raised by the county commissioners about the deal as it relates to plans to turn the lake and surrounding land into a new state park.
“This is even more egregious than the previous issue,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said during an Aug. 15 Board of County Commissioners meeting when two additional letters were fired off to different state agencies regarding the county’s concerns.
One of those went to Heather Dugan, acting director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, requesting the agency follow proper rules and procedures in evaluating Sweetwater Lake for a state park.
The other was sent to Great Outdoors Colorado Executive Director Jackie Miller, questioning a $6.2 million interest-free loan the program made to The Conservation Fund to facilitate the eventual $8.5 million purchase of the property from its previous private owners.
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The land deal was ultimately made possible by a major grant from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, along with funds from the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s Save the Lake campaign. The 488-acre lake property was turned over to the U.S. Forest Service, which is now working with CPW to make it a state park.
“It was almost like a backroom deal,” Jankovsky said in describing the GOCO loan. “I find it scandalous, and as I’ve said before I think this whole process stinks.”
Commissioners have hired outside legal counsel to look into the details of the land purchase, and have indicated the county could take legal action.
Miller, in a late Wednesday response to the commissioners, said GOCO does have constitutional authority to make loans for real property acquisitions and cited the section of the governing document that she said spells that out.
“The Sweetwater Lake loan falls comfortably within both GOCO’s constitutional authority to administer and invest money within the Trust Fund and the (GOCO) board’s discretionary authority,” Miller wrote.
“GOCO issued the Sweetwater Lake loan to help protect wildlife habitat, acquire a unique open space, protect a natural area of statewide significance, and ensure access to the public for recreation activities for generations,” she wrote.
Sweetwater Lake, located in northeastern Garfield County but accessed via Eagle County’s Colorado River Road east of Glenwood Canyon, was operated as a private resort for several decades before it came into the public trust.
Garfield County’s commissioners were initially supportive of the public acquisition in the face of potential large-scale development of the property, but have since opposed the plans to turn it into a state park. They’ve called for a full Environmental Impact Statement review process, and have asked to be an active participant in that.
In their letter to GOCO, the commissioners contend the unsecured, interest-free loan awarded to the TCF exceeded GOCO constitutional and statutory authority.
Further, it appears the loan, agreed to by the GOCO Board on March 13, 2020, was issued before the organization had a formal policy authorizing loans, which came a year later, commissioners also contend.
“The new loan policy makes a generalized declaration that ‘some property acquisitions are particularly urgent,’ but fails to identify any authority for GOCO to issue loans,” the letter states.
There’s also a question about when and how the TCF repaid the loan amount, commissioners said.
Miller said the loan amount was repaid in full on Sept. 2, 2021, and the TCF promptly sold the property to the Forest Service.
Previously, GOCO made numerous other loans for property acquisitions since its inception in 1992. The organization had prior policies in place regarding funding for land purchases, and used that criteria in making the TCF loan for Sweetwater, she said.
Aside from questioning the specifics of the land deal, the county commissioners have said they want a slow-down in the process to turn Sweetwater into a park, and for the various agencies to ensure the concerns of area residents are heard.
“This was a botched endeavor from the beginning, and I think the people in the Sweetwater area were misled,” Commissioner Mike Samson said at the Aug. 15 meeting.
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., also recently weighed in on the issue, calling on White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams to address the county’s concerns.
“Local elected officials and other important stakeholders should have been intimately involved in determining whether Sweetwater Lake became a new state park, and they also should have a strong say in future operations,” wrote Boebert, who also questioned whether certain federal laws are being followed.
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