Emma church wins settlement
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” Despite the fierce protest of some 20 Emma residents Wednesday, Pitkin County commissioners bowed to a legal settlement that will usher in a new 15,000-square-foot church along Highway 82.
The settlement overturns a 2005 Pitkin County board decision to deny a building to the Grace Church of the Roaring Fork Valley, whose more than 100 parishioners have met in rented space in the Eagle County Community Center in El Jebel since the church was founded in 2002.
Commissioners denied the original application for a 8,600-square-foot church on the 18.5 acre parcel in Emma, claiming the plan violated the land-use code and the downvalley master plan and did not fit with the rural nature of the area, county attorney John Ely said.
Church officials then filed a federal lawsuit claiming the board violated their civil rights and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious institutions.
County commissioners spent three years, countless hours and sleepless nights searching for alternatives to a situation Commissioner Jack Hatfield called “gut-wrenching” and the toughest decision he’s made in 23 years of public service.
“It’s horrible,” Commissioner Michael Owsley said after Wednesday’s decision. “You feel that you’re letting down the people who put their trust in you.”
Neighbor’s concerns are valid, Owsley said, but it’s a complex legal matter he likened to being stuck between Scylla and Charybdis.
“It’s the only choice we have,” Owsley said.
The dispute was scheduled for trial before U.S. District Court Judge Richard P. Matsch on Jan. 14, but the settlement puts the matter to rest.
“We would not be successful at the trial court level,” County Attorney John Ely said, and leaving the decision up to the courts could have left the county “bloodied.”
Other areas, including Boulder County, face similar challenges from religious groups, Ely said. The issue has not yet gone as high as the U.S. Supreme Court, Ely said, but no one has won a case against a church.
“You can’t deny people a right to practice their faith,” said Robert A. Lees, a Denver attorney representing Grace Church. “They could not do anything else, otherwise we could go at them for a lot of damages.”
The proposed church will sit on an 18.5-acre parcel in Emma. The project will include an 8,800-square-foot sanctuary and chapel, a 2,500-square-foot residence, a 3,800-square-foot expansion structure, subgrade space and 197 parking spaces.
As part of the settlement, church officials abandoned plans for a creek-side chapel, and offered the county a one-acre parcel at an undetermined price (over $350,000) to be used as a fuel facility and parking for access to the historic Emma Schoolhouse and Rio Grande Trail.
The church parcel is protected by a 10-year covenant from further building, according to the settlement, but church officials will be bound by the county land-use code in perpetuity.
The county agreed to pay attorney’s fees and any costs of the federal case as part of the settlement.
“Certainly I’m pleased with the decision, and certainly I hope over time people will give us a chance and we can be a good neighbor to that area,” said Terry Maner, pastor of Grace Church, by phone after the decision.
More than 20 Emma residents, however, urged the county board to deny the settlement and fight.
“You’re giving up everything,” Parker Maddux of Emma Road told commissioners. He urged the board to stand their ground.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a commercial project. You know it and I know it,” said Dick Bird, who questioned the need for some 197 parking spaces for 100 church members. “You need to take this thing to court.”
Others said they were concern about church traffic pouring onto Highway 82.
“I think that what you’re doing is irresponsible,” said Emma resident Liz Newman, adding that bowing to the church will set a terrible precedent.
Owen Minney, who has had his own clashes with county commissioners over his historic Emma Store and ranch property adjacent to the proposed church, said he’s already been in discussion with Catholic church officials to sell his land as a church.
“You are proposing to allow the camel’s nose under the tent,” said Emma resident Mike Simmons. “And once that happens you won’t be able to stop it.”
Many Emma resident objected that church officials could easily break the 10-year building covenant or the site would expand after the 10 years was up.
Ely stressed that any future building, before or after the covenant, would have to be in line with county code.
Grace Church officials were not present at Wednesday’s meeting in Aspen.
After a 30-minute executive session with Ely, commissioners said they would agree to the settlement.
Patti Clapper, who said she is no stranger to long fights with the feds, was the only dissenting voice on the board, a stand that fellow commissioners said was an easy minority posture.
“I don’t get it,” Don Flesher told commissioners. “Your constituents don’t want you to do this. Explain yourselves.”
Commissioner Richards said the settlement was the best protection to limit development.
“Fifteen-thousand square feet is better than 40,000 square feet,” Hatfield said, calling the settlement “not a good solution” but best for the long-term.
“Disgusting,” Dick Bird said as he left the meeting room. “These people paid no attention to what people in the area want.”
Next, attorneys for both sides will negotiate damages, likely the cost of construction delay for the church, Lees said.
“The good faith the county has shown goes a long way with us,” Lees said. “We’re not out to draw blood here.”
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