Legal dispute brews over Basalt’s Pan and Fork citizens’ initiative

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
A Basalt group is circulating a petition to purchase more of the Pan and Fork site, seen here across from Midland Spur, and keep most of it as a park.
Aspen Times file photo |

A citizens’ committee that wants the town of Basalt to purchase land and limit development at the Pan and Fork site made a direct appeal to the Town Council on Tuesday to send the controversial issue to the ballot.

Despite the plea, a legal dispute is brewing over whether the petition is legally binding and must be put before voters.

The Pan and Fork River Park Citizens Committee tried to head off a legal fight with an email to the seven members of the council. They asked that the board consider the spirit of the effort as well as their legal petition.

“People want this proposal to go to a vote,” the email said. “We urge you to give the most latitude possible in deciding whether to present these ordinances, as written, to the town electorate. We believe it is the right thing to do, and that you have strong legal grounds for doing so.”

The citizens’ committee submitted petitions with 349 registered Basalt voters to the town clerk and council Jan. 12. They said Tuesday they have now collected 412 signatures.

In a nutshell, the committee wants the town to buy 2.3 acres of property at the Pan and Fork site along Two Rivers Road, between Midland Avenue and the Rocky Mountain Institute Innovation Center. The property is owned by the nonprofit Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. (The town already owns the part of the site along the Roaring Fork River.)

The petition would limit development to the half-acre closest to the Rocky Mountain Institute building. The remaining 1.8 acres would be added to the park.

The committee will have to wait at least until Jan. 26 to see how the council responds.

“They have 30 days after the petitions are presented to them to take action on them, which would be either at the January 26 meeting or in February,” Town Attorney Tom Smith wrote to The Aspen Times in an email.

The council met with Smith in executive session Tuesday night to hear its legal options. The press and public were barred from the meeting and the council didn’t take any formal action after the private session concluded.

Smith and David Myler, the attorney for the citizens’ committee, disagree about the validity of the petition. The town clerk rejected an initial petition on the advice of Smith. The citizens’ committee reworded the petition and circulated two rather than one to avoid a legal snafu identified by Smith. The town is rejecting wording on the new petitions as well, but the citizens’ group collected signatures anyway in hopes that a compromise could be worked out.

The citizens’ committee sent its legal position directly to the council Tuesday.

One of the legal disputes is over the requirement for a 40-day protest period after the petitions were submitted. Smith maintains that Basalt must follow state law and provide the 40 days. That would remove any chance of the Pan and Fork issue getting placed on the April 5 Basalt election ballot, which already features races for mayor and three council seats.

The citizens’ committee contends the Basalt Home Rule Charter doesn’t require the 40-day protest period and the election can be scheduled.

Another potential hurdle is the petition’s proposal that the town enter a contract for the purchase of land. Smith said contracts on land purchases are administrative rather than legislative matters and, therefore, aren’t subject to initiative or referendum.

The citizens’ committee said it reworded its petition to make it clear its proposed ordinance would establish permanent policies and standards for the parcel so it can go to election.

“In conclusion, we on the citizens committee think you have all the legal authority you need to forward this thoughtful citizens initiative to the voters, either by accepting it as a valid citizens initiative or by referring it yourselves to the ballot for the voters to decide,” the committee wrote to the council Tuesday.


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