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Legal wrangling over Grace Church

Charles Agar
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

EMMA ” The legal wrangling is heating up over the proposed Grace Church in Emma.

Attorneys for the three parties involved ” church officials, Pitkin County commissioners and members of the Emma Caucus ” have filed a paper trail in federal courts, including a caucus motion to move the case back to state courts, as well as church counterclaims to dismiss on the grounds of interference.

It’s an issue that’s only grown in complexity, since a 2005 commissioners’ denial of a new building for members of the Grace Church of the Roaring Valley (the congregation of 100 people meet in rent space in El Jebel) on ranch property along Highway 82 in Emma spawned church claims of discrimination.



In 2007, church officials filed a federal lawsuit.

Faced with what they said was likely defeat in federal courts under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the county board backed down and agreed to a 15,500-square-foot church on the site, located between Basalt and El Jebel, despite a hue and cry from neighbors and members of the Emma caucus.




The case looked to be settled ” and the county’s compliance would bode well for good terms, according to attorneys for the church ” but members of the Emma Caucus then filed a lawsuit against Pitkin County and the church, claiming the board had exceeded their jurisdiction by allowing church officials to build without filing a permit.

On Feb. 4, Robert A. Lees, the Denver attorney for the church, asked that the case be moved to federal courts, claiming the state lawsuit was an attack on federal authority and the two lawsuits should be looked at by the same judge.

He won, and the case was set to go before U.S. District Court Judge Richard P. Matsch.

Caucus members are now protesting the federal hearing in front of Matsch, and instead, have asked that the case be moved to state courts.

These latest legal maneuvers, however, won’t slow the legal process to have the church built, Lees said.

“This is normal stuff,” Lees said.

Lees has filed a counter motion.

“We’re asking the federal court to dismiss the complaint filed by the Emma Caucus,” Lees said, claiming that the caucus involvement interferes with a federal case.

The county board had every right to make an agreement with the church, according to court papers filed by Lees. And the Emma Caucus had clear notice of the ongoing litigation and should not be able to “relitigate issues already determined.”

“We’re in a motions deal right now,” Lees said.

None of the legal moves have been finalized, Lees said. None are set for hearings yet, but Lees expects they will go before a federal judge in coming weeks.

cagar@aspentimes.com

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