McBrayer, Farris clash over open space, representation |

McBrayer, Farris clash over open space, representation

Eben Harrell

If you ask Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris why she is running for re-election, Farris will take a deep breath, glance over a list of notes and launch into a succinct, organized speech that at times could be confused for a lecture. It’s no-nonsense; and pay attention, because it moves along fast.It is this approach to her position – focused, intense, aggressive – that has in turn won Farris praise and enemies. To her supporters she can be trusted absolutely to be well informed, consistent and decisive. To those whom she antagonizes – in fairness, often those whom her board decisions have gone against – she comes across during public hearings as abrupt, bullheaded and discourteous.If you listen carefully, however, you’ll learn that her attitude stems from a belief in the absolute seriousness of her job. To Farris, there’s no more important position than elected official. “I’m informed. I’m prepared. I do my background work and if staying focused means not a lot of chitchat, so be it. I can be abrupt and direct. I don’t do it to hurt people. I’m passionate about what I believe in. I don’t apologize for that,” she said.Farris said her main passion is the conservation of the county’s rural character. It is a deep-rooted passion, stemming from an upbringing in New Jersey, and the witnessing of the garden state’s fall from grace.”I saw firsthand what overdevelopment did to New Jersey. It was a case of too many people who didn’t realize you have to take care of what you love. So when we talk about a four-lane highway in the valley, I can’t help but think of what the Garden State highway did in New Jersey.”Farris said she is proud of the board’s progress regarding conservation during her tenure. The conservation easements on the Child and Harvey ranches in rural Old Snowmass came under her watch. And she said a priority if re-elected will be to continue fighting to protect local water rights from Front Range developers.Her work with the open space and trails board has not come without criticism. Her opponent in November’s election, Tom McBrayer, has been particularly critical of Farris’ approval of Sustainable Settings, a conservation organization that purchased land near Carbondale through loans from the county’s open space fund, and her interest in a trail from Crested Butte to Carbondale.Farris defended the Sustainable Settings project, which is supported by both Pitkin County and the statewide Conservation Fund, saying it does important work teaching sustainable ranching practices. She also pointed out that the project prevented the development of 11 homes of up to 15,000 square feet. “It’s tough to criticize it when you think of the alternative,” she said.Regarding the trail, Farris admitted there are problems, but pointed out the board has not approved it yet, only investigated its feasibility.”I keep hearing from my opponent that Pitkin County wants to condemn private land with this trail. That’s just not true. We are simply looking at whether such a trail is possible.”In response to McBrayer’s attacks, Farris said her opponent is a “one-issue candidate” who has become “myopic” in his apparent focus on the trail.In contrast, Farris said her platform is broad and well informed. As chairman of the Roaring Fork Transportation Board, for example, Farris hopes her leadership has enacted far-ranging changes, convincing Garfield County, New Castle and Silt to join the board this November.She also said she has been looking closely at the budget in response to the county’s projected deficit. With revenue limited by state amendments – most prominently the Tax Payers Bill of Rights – cuts are all but inevitable. But she has strong beliefs where cuts should be avoided.”I’m convinced that employee retention is so important. It costs the county so much money to re-train employees. As far as other departments, any decision I make will have conservation and wildlife protection as its priority. I’d leave a pothole in the street to protect wildlife. It’s that important to me.”Tom McBrayer has big changes in mind for Pitkin County. If elected to the board of county commissioners on Nov. 2, McBrayer said he will push for nothing short of an overhaul of the county’s voting procedure. McBrayer, who installs and repairs propane gas systems in the Roaring Fork Valley, has lived in the rural Crystal River Valley for 20 years. He voted for his opponent in this year’s election, Dorothea Farris, four years ago. But he said since then Farris has not represented voters in her district, and he places much of the blame on the county voting system. Currently, commissioner candidates run for seats in a particular district and are mandated by the county’s home rule charter to represent that district. Commissioners, however, are elected by voters across the county. McBrayer said such a voting system undermines candidates’ accountability to their district. And he said he has a solution.”I want to see four voting districts and one at-large seat,” McBrayer said. “Under my plan you can only vote for the candidates in your district and the at-large seat. Frankly the issues in rural Pitkin County are different than the resort centers.”McBrayer’s complaints about Farris center around two decisions by the county’s open space and trails board, both supported by Farris. He said the decisions show Farris acting in opposition to a majority of voters in her district.His main dispute with the county came recently over a feasibility study partially funded by the county for a trail from Crested Butte to Carbondale. McBrayer helped form a lobby group – the Crystal Valley Alliance – to oppose the trail route proposed by the study, claiming it infringed on local private-property rights as well as threatened wildlife in the area. He said the group was shocked by how little attention county officials paid to it, particularly Farris.”We formed a group to protect ourselves from the county. That should give you an idea of how little we felt we were being heard,” he said. “Our elected official basically stonewalled us.” The other conflict came when the commissioners approved the use of open space money to secure a section of land near Carbondale for Sustainable Settings, an independent research organization.”We lent money when [the county] should have just bought the land,” McBrayer said. “I don’t necessarily oppose the Sustainable Settings organization, but we used open space and trails money and then didn’t end up owning the land. That seemed wrong.”Along with overhauling the voting system, McBrayer said he will work to change the land-use process if elected. He is less concerned with changes to the land-use code (“It’s generally fair,” he said) but with what he sees as cronyism and other forms of corruption in the application of the code.”If Pitkin County likes you, it’s relatively easy to develop [your property],” he said. “If they don’t, they make it very difficult for you.”When that happens, it seems the people with the time and money to fight the county in legal battles are the only ones who end up getting what they want.”McBrayer said the biggest issue facing the county, if not his campaign, is the county’s projected deficit. Unless a change is made, the county’s general fund will run at a loss by 2007.McBrayer said new or increased taxes are not the answer for solving the financial crunch. He believes non-essential programs should be individually targeted for cuts.”One simple way to handle this would be to cut every department’s budget,” he said. “But that’s not the answer. You have to look carefully at individual programs and identify what is absolutely essential to the community.”Asked whether he thinks he can win a countywide election with so obvious a loyalty to his own district, McBrayer said he puts his trust in the democratic system. He said he is following the county’s home rule charter, which states candidates should represent their own districts. “I’m not going to change what I say just to get elected,” he said. “My hope is that people in Aspen understand there’s a contradiction between what our home rule charter said about representation and how commissioners are currently elected.”Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is