Hell, No, They Won't Grow

Boulder property owners worry that the county's slow-growth policies have become no-growth policies.

The county has always wanted to acquire the seventy acres on top of Big Horn Mountain for open space, says attorney Anuta, who represents the other property owners in Heath's suit. The county, however, has never been willing to pay what the landowners wanted. In the 1980s, when the owners offered to sell their land for approximately $200,000, Anuta says, the county claimed the price was too high.

Before the three-day trial started on July 26, the landowners again tried to sell their land to the county. This time the price tag was just under $2 million, which the county said was too steep. Since the land hadn't been assessed in more than ten years, the landowners then said they'd sell it for whatever an appraiser said it was worth, but the county rejected that idea, too. Instead the county offered to buy all of the land for $1.3 million if the landowners agreed to pay Parker's legal bills. The owners rejected that deal.

On September 2, Boulder District Judge Roxanne Bailin ruled that the road is private. Her research had turned up no evidence that the Old Wagon Road was ever public. In 1953, the State of Colorado had required Boulder County to submit a road map so that the state could determine what percentage of gas-tax revenues the county should receive. "That map, as submitted by Boulder County, did not show the Old Wagon Road," Bailin noted in her ruling. "Accordingly, Boulder County did not identify the Old Wagon Road as a road it was obliged to maintain. Boulder County would have had a significant incentive to include the Old Wagon Road if it were obliged to maintain it, because it would have received additional money from the state."

Permission denied: When Jim and Tara Parks asked to insulate their small apartment complex, the county gave them the cold shoulder.
Victoria Shearer
Permission denied: When Jim and Tara Parks asked to insulate their small apartment complex, the county gave them the cold shoulder.


Previous Westword articles

"A Slippery Slope,"
March 11, 1999
For mountain property owners in Boulder, the road home may be getting steeper.
By Julie Jargon

"A Growing Problem,"
June 11, 1998
Opponents of urban sprawl threaten to take the issue straight to the voters.
By Stuart Steers

"Spaced Out,"
September 11, 1997
Colorado residents take the initiative in slowing growth.
By Eric Dexheimer

Anuta says his clients will likely appeal the decision. As for Heath, "I just want the county to pay me fair market value and I'll move on," he says.

In July, the county commissioners offered to buy 2,500 acres of mountain land from the Bureau of Land Management. Most of the BLM's holdings in Boulder County are small, hard-to-find pieces that aren't worth the agency's time to manage. Still, the county's proposal to buy these scattered patches has mountain residents whose property abuts BLM land worried about what their new landlords might do with it.

"BLM policy has always been to give property owners access to their land," says Land Use Coalition member Ann Mygatt, whose property in Fourmile Canyon runs up against BLM land. "To cross BLM land, property owners have to get an easement, which usually expires after thirty years. People can get their easements renewed at the end of that time, but the county hasn't said they'll renew them.

"Because the county's policy has long been to deny public access on open space, we have no faith in our county to do it now. We're afraid people will be locked out of their land."

Fueling the coalition's concern is the amount of money the Boulder commissioners seem willing to pay for the acreage. Although private parties must buy BLM land at a fair market value, under the federal Recreation and Public Purposes Act, a county can acquire BLM land for free, or for no more than about $10 an acre, if it promises to make that land available for recreation.

Boulder County, however, has proposed purchasing the land at market value. Since the land has yet to be assessed, that price has not been determined; BLM realty specialist Jan Fackrell says a final decision regarding the land sale is months away. But neighboring landowners are already worried that Boulder wants to pay the higher price in order to keep any new open-space purchases closed to the public.

As evidence, they point to the county's proposal to the BLM: "Boulder County has long been concerned about the effects of privatization of the BLM Boulder land, and the potential development-related impacts on the fragile mountain ecosystem. This proposal will allow Boulder County to deal with these matters directly, and in a manner consistent with County policies and goals."

Stewart says landowners are making much ado about nothing. "If we buy the land, it will be subject to any easements that exist today," he says, stopping short of guaranteeing that those easements will be renewed in the future or promising that the county will grant easements to landowners who don't yet have permission to traverse BLM property. Allowing future access across the land, he adds, "will have to be taken on a case-by-case basis."

If the BLM agrees to the sale, Stewart says, the commissioners would consider selling pieces of the land to adjacent property owners in the form of conservation easements: That way, private property owners would be able to access their land, but they wouldn't be able to develop the former BLM properties.

The Land Use Coalition is already saving up for possible legal battles. "If the county's proposal goes through and they don't allow people access to their land, I could foresee years of lawsuits," Mygatt says.

Thanks to a law passed during the last legislative session, suing the county may be a less formidable task than it once was. Senator Norma Anderson, a Republican from Lakewood, had been trying to pass some version of Senate Bill 99-218 for five years, but it had always been vetoed. This time, she says, it passed easily, not just because the state has a Republican governor, but because the proposal had overwhelming support from Boulder residents. "This usually becomes a partisan issue, but we had just as many Democrats in Boulder County testifying for it as Republicans, and that tells me something -- that Boulder is not recognizing property rights," Anderson says.

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