Bad blood spilling from water dispute
An eccentric Aspenite who claims Pitkin County government has ruined his livelihood is retaliating by refusing to pay rent for the county land he farms.
Lada Vrany, a temperamental Czechoslovakian who has lived in Aspen for 42 years, has skipped annual payments on about 350 acres of pasture and monthly rental on a home for the past four years.
He has withheld payment of about $18,800 in rent because he contends county actions have cost him at least $5,000 more than that amount over the last few years.
Some county officials insist that Vrany’s shortcomings are in his mind, not the government’s actions. The dispute is nothing more than a tenant failing to pay his rent, they said.
The bickering has been ongoing since 1988, when the county bought the Airport Ranch, which Vrany had rented since 1958 from Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke.
The ranch, once at 480 acres, is west of the airport, tucked behind a hillside along Owl Creek Road.
Expensive county decision
The county initially declined to buy the ranch’s water rights, which were offered at $45,000. When county commissioners reconsidered and decided to buy those water rights in 1996 from the Paepcke estate, the price had skyrocketed to $850,000.
Despite the hefty expenditure, Vrany alleges that county officials have lost track of the Airport Ranch’s water – some of the superior rights in the valley.
He claimed he used to receive enough water to irrigate pastures that produced 200 tons of hay each summer. Now, only a trickle of water arrives at the ranch – enough to produce one ton of hay.
Vrany, 81, makes his living by selling the hay or leasing pasture to cattle ranchers. The county’s alleged inattention to the water rights is costing him at least $6,000 per year, he calculated.
Vrany said the problem got so bad last summer that he ran out of irrigation water in June, even though he claimed the ranch has superior rights from sources like the West Willow and Willow drainages, Owl Creek, Maroon Creek and the Stapleton Brothers Ditch.
“Why did they buy the land if they don’t take care of it?” he said.
Vrany suspects some of the water is being tapped by luxury housing developments before it reaches the ranch. He feels the county hasn’t been diligent enough to defend its rights. And if objections aren’t filed in water court against adverse use, the public could lose its water rights, he contended.
He has convinced a new state water commissioner for the Aspen area to study his claims on Friday.
Man who calls wolf?
Meanwhile, he has been hounding county officials for answers about where the water is going. The county responded by prohibiting staff members from talking to him.
“They never answer,” he said.
But Commissioner Mick Ireland claimed the county has already spent considerable taxpayer funds looking into Vrany’s claims. There is no evidence to support allegations that up-ditch and upstream users are taking water that rightfully belongs to the county’s Airport Ranch, according to Ireland.
And Vrany pressing his case again is not necessarily enough of a reason to spend funds on another investigation, Ireland said.
“I’m not interested in giving Lada Vrany any more credibility,” said Ireland. “My guess is this has already been looked at and it’s probably groundless. I don’t know that the water isn’t getting to the site.”
Ireland conceded that “maybe we need to look at this again” and said he would raise the issue with County Attorney John Ely.
Eviction isn’t option
Commissioner Dorothea Farris also said perhaps the county should place a higher priority on the issue. The county has tried to investigate water rights issues at the ranch, but she believes the slow speed of the complicated investigation has frustrated Vrany.
She also suspects that Vrany won’t like some of the possible answers. Water that once went for irrigation at the Airport Ranch may now be going to uses at the airport, she said. Some of it may also be destined for the North Forty housing project across Highway 82 from the airport, she said.
Since the water isn’t available for irrigation, Vrany contends that he isn’t obligated to pay rent to live on the county-owned property.
The county takes a different view of the matter. In a letter to Vrany last fall, County Attorney Ely wrote that terms of the lease say the county isn’t responsible for any natural or legal shortage of water serving the ranch. He asked Vrany to contact the airport manager to make arrangements to pay his back rent.
Commissioner Farris said the county would never seek eviction, even if it is entitled.
“He owes that but we’re not really pressing it,” said Farris. “I won’t allow us to do it to someone who’s lived there most of his life.”
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