Sanders Ranch foes build legal defense war chest
Two groups allied in opposition to the massive Sanders Ranch development proposal are raising legal defense funds in case they have to press their points in court.
But while the allies’ goals are the same, their tactics are slightly different.
The Roaring Crystal Alliance, a powerful citizens group, claims it is raising funds solely for the purpose of lobbying the Garfield County commissioners to reject Sanders Ranch and to potentially help the county defend that decision in court.
“We’re not really in a mode right now of overturning an approval, but in a mode of defending a denial,” said Bob Schultz, an RCA leader.
A new nonprofit, public-interest law firm isn’t quite as convinced that will be the outcome of the county commissioners’ Feb. 8 deliberations on Sanders Ranch.
The Aspen-based Public Counsel of the Rockies is also collecting funds to put together “an all-star team” to testify as to why Sanders Ranch should be rejected on legal and planning grounds.
Unlike RCA, Public Counsel acknowledges funds might also be needed to fuel a legal challenge
if the county commissioners ap-prove the project. The organization “wants to be prepared for any eventuality,” said project director and Aspen attorney Karin Gus-tafson. Independent efforts A fund-raising letter circulated by Public Counsel Jan. 12 said it is acting in conjunction with RCA and other citizens who are concerned about Sanders Ranch.
But RCA’s Schultz said that wasn’t quite right. They are working on independent but parallel paths, he said. RCA isn’t discussing, at least not publicly, what it would do if the commissioners approve the Sanders Ranch proposal. Its leaders have been careful to avoid threatening Garfield County with a lawsuit.
Public Counsel’s fund-raising letter noted that the Garfield County Planning Commission’s 4-3 vote Jan. 6 “paved the way for approval of the Sanders Ranch mega-development between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.”
George Hanlon and his Sopris Development Group LLC have proposed 561 residences and 300,000 square feet of commercial space along Highway 82.
Gustafson said Public Counsel’s “number one goal” is to convince the county commissioners to reject the proposal. The “all-star team” it is trying to assemble includes nationally renowned land-use attorney Bob Freilich and his local partner, Dave Myler. They also want to enlist Rep. Bryan Sullivant, R-Breckenridge, who annually introduces legislation to require more land-use planning in Colorado.
“The importance of Mr. Freilich and Mr. Sullivant lies not only in their ability to sway the Commissioners, but to create an air-tight record for judicial review in the event the Commissioners approve the project and we are required to bring suit to have the decision thrown out,” said Public Counsel’s letter.
In case the project is approved, former Pitkin County government attorney Tim Whitsitt has “volunteered to work with Mr. Myler on the post-hearing litigation,” the letter said. Lawsuit seems inevitable Leaders of RCA and Public Counsel were scheduled to meet last night to discuss their approaches.
“It may be that we can all get on the same page,” said Schultz.
Gustafson said she realized that Public Counsel’s talk of the potential need to file litigation against Garfield County makes RCA nervous. “Bob was trying to distance himself from us, and that’s fine,” she said.
But to a large extent, the two groups are already on the same page. Myler will help represent them both during the commissioners’ hearings. And both groups are trying to establish their roles in the governmental review process so they can participate in any potential litigation as “friends of the court.”
Both groups also expect Hanlon to file a lawsuit if the county commissioners rule against him. Hanlon’s attorney, Jim Lochhead of Glenwood Springs, filed documents with the county before the project review started that outline Hanlon’s legal view of his rights.
“Given the 38-page legal brief that the developer’s attorney filed, it would be naive to think people aren’t thinking about litigation,” RCA’s Schultz said.
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