Legality Bair Ranch deal questioned
An attorney for Arrowhead resident Steve Morris has sent the county a letter suggesting the county’s commitment to a $2 million contribution is a violation of both state statutes and the county’s own open space funding regulation. Morris is asking the county to take no action on the already-approved motion to contribute the funds.
“The last thing we want to do is go to a lawsuit. We have some issues that just make total sense in my mind,” said Morris, a retired businessman and full-time county resident. Morris was narrowly defeated when he ran for office against Arn Menconi in 2000.
Assistant County Attorney Brian Treu said his office is reviewing the letter, but has not yet had an opportunity to talk it over with the county commissioners.
Although the commissioners voted 2-1 in July to contribute $2 million toward the total $5 million easement on the Glenwood Canyon ranch, the conservation easement is not a done deal. The easement would prevent future development of the scenic, 4,300-acre ranch that straddles the border of Eagle and Garfield counties.
Cindy Cohagen of the Eagle Valley Land Trust said negotiations with landowner Craig Bair are continuing. The Conservation Fund is the lead entity in the deal.
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In addition to the money the county has pledged, the Bureau of Land Management has tentatively committed to $1.5 million to the project, the lottery-funded Great Outdoors Colorado program has pledged $400,000 for Bair Ranch and another $1.3 million is being raised from private donors.
Questioning the process
Morris, through his attorney, John Goodman of Edwards, is questioning several aspects of the county funding. He maintains the county cannot use general funds for the conservation easement. At the time of their vote, the commissioners indicated the funds would come from a combination of general fund and sales tax revenues, which would involve the delay of some capital projects.
Morris is claiming that such use of general funds would exceed the spending limits established by the state’s TABOR amendment. He claims the county is improperly attempting to modify its 2003 budget.
“There can be no proper allocation of general funds to acquire lands for open space,” the letter states.
The businessman also notes that the county’s open space tax ballot question, approved by voters in 2002, specifies that open space tax spending decisions will be reviewed by a citizen advisory committee. Open space tax revenues will start coming into the county in 2004.
“If the county can at any given time spend any amount of money because two commissioners feel like they can do it, why bother to have a budgeting process?” said Morris.
“I feel that it’s against the law what the county is doing here. There is a regular process for budgeting in any government,” he added. Typically, the commissioners make numerous changes in the approved budget throughout the year, by voting for changes in allocations.”
County Commissioner Arn Menconi, a strong supporter of the Bair Ranch conservation easement, disputed Morris’ claims. Menconi said the county spends $3 million to $5 million per year on capitol projects with the funds coming from re-allocation of general funds or from setting aside planned capital projects. He sited the acquisitions of East and West Brush Creeks for a state park, and the purchase of the Berry Creek Fifth property as examples.
“(Morris is) basically claiming the county can’t spend general fund dollars. The county is always spending general fund dollars. To insinuate or file a lawsuit claiming we have to go to the people (for a vote) is absolutely absurd,” said Menconi.
Morris said he is acting on his own in challenging the Bair Ranch spending. He said he was prompted by newspaper articles and by a recent full-page ad raising questions about County Commissioner Tom Stone’s opposition to the Bair Ranch easement.
The businessman stressed that his issue is the county process, rather than specifically the Bair Ranch. During his 2000 campaign, Morris advocated maintaining open space at several locations along the Interstate 70.
Although Morris said he does not want to go to court, the letter to the county specifies that legal recourse would be an option in stopping the Bair Ranch spending. Morris is asking County Commission Chairman Michael Gallagher and County Administrator Jack Ingstad to meet with him and his attorney to discuss the budget issues.
“I’m not trying to stir anything up. I’m just trying to make the process work the way it’s supposed to,” said Morris.
Morris has been involved in litigation with the county on a previous occasion. After losing the 2000 commissioner race to Arn Menconi by 37 votes, he filed a lawsuit challenging the election results, claiming fraudulent voting was allowed. He dropped that complaint after a few weeks.
Cohagen, meanwhile, said the Land Trust is moving ahead with private fund raising for the Bair Ranch easement.
“It is an amazing piece of property. I hope we get this deal done for the next generation of people who come to this county to live, or play or drive through,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Bair parcel remains private property. The county learned this week that Craig Bair is exploring the possibility of developing a recreational vehicle park on the site. The conservation easement would preclude such a project.