Showdown at the Divide: Utility company challenges residents
summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY ” For a few hardy Summit County souls, the residential neighborhoods up toward Hoosier Pass represent a dream come true, with remote alpine home sites and spellbinding views.
But developer Tay Loftin’s hopes for building on his property in the Quandary Village subdivision, along County Road 805 near Monte Cristo Creek, have soured recently, as the city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities has tried to block him from accessing his lots and has sent letters threatening legal action if he pursues a development application with Summit County.
“They’ve always said they’ll work with us,” Loftin said, referring to the utility company, which operates part of its trans-mountain water collection and diversion system in the area. “But our right to do what we want with our land has been affected,” he said.
Speaking during a county commissioner work session last week, Loftin said interference by Colorado Springs is costing him money, as he continues to pay interest on a half-million dollar construction loan without making much progress on at least one of the 11 lots he owns along County Road 805.
Loftin and other property owners in the area suggested the Front Range water provider is using strong-arm tactics to try and bully landowners, and even using the threat of legal action to intimidate the county.
At issue are potential impacts to Colorado Springs Untilities’ water pipeline and collection system, established more than 10 years before the land in the area was platted for development. The Front Range city gets as much as 10 percent of its total municipal water supply from the Blue River watershed by piping it under the Continental Divide.
“Impacts to the pipe or the system could have a significant effect on our customers,” said systems operations manager Scott Campbell.
Development and traffic along County Road 805 could “put our infrastructure and our ability to operate our systems at risk,” Campbell said. “We don’t think it’s responsible to … issue permits until these issues have been resolved,” he added. They have asked Summit County to refrain from issuing building permits in the area, implying that Colorado Springs would go to court to block development until outstanding issues are resolved.
At the heart of the matter are several conflicting surveys that make it hard to determine the precise location of lot lines and the path of a non-exclusive utility easement in the subdivision. A number of old survey monuments in the area have been destroyed, and even the most recent mapping effort, using Highway 9 as a reference point, may be flawed.
“I know we’ve been pests … but we have some serious concerns that there could be significant material injury to our water rights,” said Campbell.
In fact, Colorado Springs Utilities claims the road is not legally a county road, based on its interpretation of existing plats. But county officials were very clear that they intend to protect access for property owners.
“We are making it a very high priority,” said assistant county manager Thad Noll. “They have non-exclusive easement rights but not property rights,” Noll said.
“Property owners need to show how they have legal access to their property,” said resource planning manager Brett Gracely, during the work session discussion.
“What rights do you have, as non-exclusive easement holders, to control … access,” replied county attorney Jeff Huntley. “Where do you get the right to say, you can’t access your property?” Huntley added.
Utility company officials said they were willing to work with the county and property owners, but some recent actions by the utility seem to conflict with those intentions.
“One Sunday afternoon in April (2006) we went up there and there was a concrete barrier across the road,” said Stuart Fontaine, who, with his wife, owns an 11-acre parcel along the road next to Loftin’s lots. “We were told it’s no longer a county road. Basically, since that barrier went up, I can’t sell my lot.”
“A concrete barrier across the road doesn’t sound collaborative,” said county commissioner Thomas Davidson.
At first, the Colorado Springs team said the blockade was a response to 9/11, but it later became clear that the barrier wasn’t erected until just last year. Since then, Colorado Springs has moved the concrete blocks aside and will haul them out of the area later this year, Campbell said.
The parties met for several hours after the county commissioner work session, and Noll said some progress was made. The Colorado Springs contingent will return in two weeks with a specific list of issues they would like to see addressed. Among other things, the county agreed to look into the possibility of a drainage master plan for the platted subdivision, commissioner Tom Long said.
According to Long, the utility company’s tactics going into the work session may have been a little heavy-handed. But Noll said that both sides have recognized that the best course for all concerned ” the property owners and the utility ” is to work together and avoid a legal battle. The county does recognize that Colorado Springs has a significant interest in the operation of its water system. But the county is not about give up any of its rights, Long concluded.
For its part, Colorado Springs Utilities wants clarification on the legal recognition of the easement corridor, pipeline and road and its relationship to the subdivision plat.
Campbell said he was guardedly optimistic.
“Everybody at the table has valid concerns. There’s a real strong possibility of coming up with a collaborative solution,” he said, adding that his Front Range team would be willing to take the lead or partner with the county on a drainage master plan that could help address concerns such as slope instability.
Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at email@example.com.
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