Roaring Fork Club loses in court battle
The Roaring Fork Club in Basalt may be forced to relocate some expensive vacation homes on its golf course after losing a court battle with a neighboring rancher.
The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Dec. 23 that the club must remove structures and other improvements which “reasonably interfere” with the St. Jude Co.’s access to and maintenance of three irrigation ditches. St. Jude is a corporation affiliated with rancher Reno Cerise.
The removal of the cabins and a golf green could potentially cost the Roaring Fork Club “several million dollars,” according to court documents. With that amount of money at stake, it is expected the Roaring Fork Club will appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court or scramble for an out-of-court settlement.
Scott Balcomb, one of St. Jude Co.’s attorneys, said he was reluctant to discuss the case since there are still issues to be resolved in court. While an appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court by the Roaring Fork Club is possible, Balcomb said he hoped this decision would provide incentive for a settlement.
He wouldn’t say what Cerise would require for settlement. Cerise couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.
Brian Stowell, an attorney for the Roaring Fork Club, said “there are still a lot of unknowns” in the case. Removing cabins certainly isn’t a given, he said.
David Burden, who is managing construction at the club, said “other remedies will be discussed” with Cerise. “We just do not believe that it will come to the severely onerous” remedy of removing cabins, said Burden. Roots of dispute The dispute that led to the court decision goes back at least to 1995 when the Roaring Fork Club partners bought ranch land on both sides of Highway 82 just east of Basalt.
The Roaring Fork Club became co-owner with St. Jude Co. of three irrigation ditches. Cerise, who is a partner in St. Jude Co., uses the ditches to transport water for his agricultural operations.
Cerise possesses what is known as historic apportionment easements and rights-of-way for entry onto the Roaring Fork Club’s property to perform ditch work.
In September 1997, he started documenting construction by the Roaring Fork Club that he thought would interfere with the ditches’ ability to transport water and his ability to maintain the ditches. He applied in 1997 for a mandatory injunction to stop the work.
In a 1998 trial, Pitkin County District Judge Thomas Ossola found that the Roaring Fork Club trespassed by building cabins and golf greens within the ditch easements and by destroying ditch banks and actual portions of the ditches. Cerise appeals `remedy’ To remedy the situation, Ossola ruled that the Roaring Fork Club would be responsible for operation and maintenance of the ditches and be obligated to provide water to St. Jude Co. when it was demanded and at the amount demanded.
Cerise appealed Judge Ossola’s proposed remedy and argued through his attorneys, Balcomb and David Sandoval of Glenwood Springs, that removing the cabins constructed within the ditch easement was the best remedy.
Appellate Court Judges Peter Ney and Karen Metzger agreed.
But Judge Jo Ann Vogt dissented, arguing that Ossola’s solution was appropriate and consistent with Supreme Court precedent. She noted that Ossola found that restoring the ditches would be costly and interfere with the Roaring Fork Club’s development plans.
” … in regard to the cost of restoration, there was testimony that it would cost several million dollars to remove improvements constructed by defendant and restore the ditches to their original condition,” Vogt wrote.
The Roaring Fork Club developed 45 vacation homes on the north and south sides of Highway 82. Some of the cabins were purchased by individual buyers while others were sold in fractional interests.
Although they are called cabins, they are actually 2,500-square-foot luxury homes. They all sold for a minimum of $1.2 million.
Balcomb said that, relying on the best of his recollection, about nine cabins could be affected by the appellate court’s decision.
In an affidavit filed with Pitkin County District Court, Cerise testified that a section of the Red Rock Bluff Ditch was destroyed when the club constructed a road over it. An opening created after the ditch was blocked wasn’t big enough to transport the water, he claimed.
Cerise further claimed that an upper bank of the Grace and Shehi Ditch was destroyed by the club’s work and that foundations of three cabins were built eight feet from that ditch.
Elsewhere along that ditch, the locations of another cabin foundation and golf green would block access to a weir station, which measures water flow, and waste gate, which regulates the flow, according to an affidavit signed by Cerise.
The Roaring Fork Club allegedly made diversions that interfered with the flow of the John Cerise Ditch, according to the affidavit.
“Building cabins so close to the ditches may also cause harm to the structure and its owners,” Cerise testified. “Seepage of water into the home is possible.”
The work will also make it next to impossible to maintain the ditches adequately, Cerise alleged. Maintenance was historically performed with heavy equipment such as a backhoe, tractor and skidster. There’s not enough room to operate that equipment now in places.
Judge Ossola rejected the Roaring Fork Club’s argument that it trespassed in the ditch easements on the assumption it had an “oral agreement” with Cerise.
Balcomb said his client intends to continue using the irrigation ditches for his ranching operation.
While Cerise’s appeal for removal of the intruding structures was granted, his appeal to recover attorney’s fees was denied. All a misunderstanding Burden and Jim Light, the managing partner of the Roaring Fork Club, said they believe their relationship with Cerise has improved in the last 18 months, since they have taken a more active role in managing the golf and fly fishing club’s development.
Light said they have made sure the water flows to Cerise’s property, there’s daily communication between the two parties and there is “every effort to be a good neighbor.”
When asked why they didn’t negotiate a settlement before Cerise gained the leverage of a court decision, Light explained that the emphasis of their relations with Cerise haven’t been on litigation or settlement, but on improving day-to-day communication.
Both Light and Burden limited their comments because the case is still in litigation and to guard against fouling chances of an out-of-court settlement.
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