County to pay $674K to Grace Church |

County to pay $674K to Grace Church

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Pitkin County’s fight with the parishioners of Grace Church is over for now, leaving the county owing the church more than $674,000 and the church with permission to build up to 15,000 square feet of chapel, rectory and outbuildings.

The money owed by the county includes attorney’s fees incurred by the church in its federal lawsuit to overturn Pitkin County’s denial of the church’s building proposal for a former sheep ranch in Emma, a rural neighborhood near Basalt.

It also includes $350,000 to be paid to the church in return for an agreement to limit the church buildings to 15,000 square feet.

A second part of the lawsuit, seeking damages resulting from the county’s actions, still is pending in state court.

The settlement and related documents, prepared by County Attorney John Ely, were approved by a vote of 4-1 at the Pitkin County commissioners meeting Tuesday in Aspen. Commissioner Patti Clapper dissented, saying she would have preferred to pursue the county’s case in court.

Ely pointed out that most of the money owed to the church, everything but the $350,000 settlement incentive, will be covered by the county’s insurance.

The settlement also calls for the church to give one acre of its land to the county, half of which will be used as a parking lot for users of the Rio Grande Trail and the other half of which will be used as a fueling station for county vehicles.

The settlement resolution was the most recent development in the Grace Church saga. Last January, the commissioners overturned their 2005 decision denying the church’s application to build a new church along Highway 82 in Emma, just downvalley from Basalt.

The county said it reversed its decision because of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which forbids local governments from impeding anyone’s right to worship, and is the basis of the church’s lawsuit.

Commissioners maintained that while the proposed church and other structures did not fit with the rural character of the surrounding area, and, as such, was in violation of the county’s land-use code, a loss in federal court could have resulted in a mega-church in the neighborhood.

The county’s decision to allow Grace Church to build the chapel and other buildings, along with 197 parking spaces, was a way to maintain some control over the project, county officials have said.

A companion lawsuit by the church, seeking damages from the county based on arguments that construction costs have risen since the 2005 denial, is pending. Ely declined to predict what the damages might be, if awarded by a judge, other than to characterize them as “some percentage of the construction cost.”

Neighbors and members of the Emma Caucus opposed the church plans, fought the decision to reverse the denial, and filed their own lawsuit in Pitkin County District Court in February, claiming the county commissioners failed to hold public meetings and did not follow the county land-use code.

That suit also is pending, although Ely predicted that whichever way the suit goes, it will not affect the settlement because the settlement has been accepted by a federal judge and “it is against the law to attempt to undo in state court what has happened in federal court.”