Bill sparked by Summit County land-seizure controversy dies in committee
A move by Summit County last year to seize private property using eminent domain became the catalyst for a Colorado Senate bill aimed at limiting local governments from using that authority in the future.
The bill was voted down Tuesday, Feb. 17, by a bipartisan group of senators on the local government committee, which means it won’t be presented on the Senate floor or continue to the House.
“We’re really pleased that it died an early death,” said Karn Stiegelmeier, chair of the Summit Board of County Commissioners. “It really was a groundswell of opposition from counties as well as municipalities.”
Colorado Counties Inc., a group that represents the state’s mostly small, rural and conservative county governments, strongly opposed the measure.
So did the Colorado Municipal League, which represents towns. Though the bill applied only to county governments, the league worried that if it passed another bill targeting town governments would follow.
Bill sponsor Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, said the bill would stop governments from seizing land for recreation, conservation or open space purposes and defend personal property rights.
‘RARELY EVER USED’
“People like to think of eminent domain as a terrible government action, but it’s rarely, rarely ever used,” Stiegelmeier said.
She called the authority an important tool that helps counties and towns create and protect parks, trails, scenery and recreation areas, especially in places like Summit that are home to old, private mining claims established before national forest land was designated around them.
County Commissioners Dan Gibbs and Thomas Davidson visited state legislators in Denver last week to talk about the benefits of eminent domain and government-managed open space.
In the few instances in which governments use eminent domain, Stiegelmeier said, they often choose that route because the property owner would rather have the property condemned than sold.
It’s normally a friendly condemnation, she said.
The 2014 case in which the county used eminent domain to seize the Hunter Mine, a 10-acre parcel of land south of Breckenridge and surrounded by national forest, is not a good example, Stiegelmeier said.
“We were pushed into a corner, and that was really the one tool that we had left,” she said.
She said the property owners, Andy and Ceil Barrie, were using a vehicle without authorization on the property, a Forest Service discovery which led the county to learn about previous construction done without permits.
After a bitter legal battle, the county bought the land from Barrie for about four times its appraised value, she said. “He kept saying his property was stolen from him, and he actually made out well financially.”
The Barries received $115,000 from the county as well as $50,000 from his title company, Andy Barrie said, which was involved in the litigation and appraised his property value as much higher than the county appraisal.
“The county’s was garbage,” said Barrie, 56.
Barrie said he was disappointed the Senate bill wouldn’t become law.
Stiegelmeier said Barrie’s property was biologically sensitive and heavily used for recreation. It was also designated in the county’s master plan as an area the public wanted to protect.
“We felt like we were doing what the community wanted us to do,” she said, and the couple of local residents who expressed concern to county officials quickly changed their minds once they understood the county’s position.
Besides the Hunter Mine land, the county has used eminent domain to acquire property one other time in the last 25 years.
County attorney Jeff Huntley said in 1994 the county was in the process of buying eight small lots north of Breckenridge between Highway 9 and the Tiger Run Resort RV park.
Right before the county finalized the purchase, someone bought the last of the eight lots, he said, so the county used eminent domain to acquire it. The move kept the lots from becoming houses and prevented widening of the road, Huntley said. People now park and fish there.
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