Straight-shot land deal done | AspenTimes.com

Straight-shot land deal done

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The Colorado Department of Transportation now owns a highway easement across Aspen open space, but local citizens have vowed to continue fighting CDOT’s ability to use it.

While a handful of Aspenites conducted a low-key protest outside City Hall on Thursday morning, city and CDOT officials headed for a local title office to sign the paperwork transferring the easement for the Entrance to Aspen over to the state in exchange for open space near the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Highway 82.

“Once they’ve given the land, it’s unlikely they will ever get it back,” said Cliff Weiss, an organizer of the Citizens for a Small Town Entrance and one of the plaintiffs in the group’s lawsuit against the city and CDOT.

While Weiss read a prepared statement at the front door of City Hall, CDOT officials headed through the side entrance.

“Well that was brave of them, to come in the side door,” said Dennis Vaughn, a supporter of the Citizens and an officer with the Friends of Marolt Park, a separate group that opposes use of the open space for the highway.

As they left, the protesters arranged a few of their placards on the windshield of the CDOT van. “CDOT Can’t Be Trusted” and “Stop the Straight Shot” read two of the signs.

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Yesterday’s conveyance of the easement adds a new wrinkle to the Citizens’ legal battle. In their suit, the group has asked the court to halt the transfer until it is approved by voters.

Last week, District Judge Thomas Ossola rejected the group’s motion for a temporary restraining order to halt the property transfer. A hearing is scheduled Aug. 21 on a preliminary injunction to suspend the conveyance pending the outcome of the suit, but now that it’s a done deal, the group will have to assess its next step, said Vaughn, a retired attorney.

“We have a decision to make – whether to go ahead to that preliminary injunction hearing or whether that is meaningless,” he said. “We’ll have to decide if it’s meaningless.

“The lawsuit will not be abandoned.”

City Attorney John Worcester told the City Council this week that he believes there will be no need for next week’s hearing, since a request for a preliminary injunction simply asks the judge to block something that has already occurred.

“I think the whole issue becomes moot,” Worcester said. “You can’t unring a bell that’s already been rung.”

The Citizens’ case, however, continues to have merit, according to Vaughn. The judge can still void the conveyance of the easement, he said.

In their protest yesterday, the group reiterated questions it has been asking ever since a three-member majority on the City Council voted in April to approve a resolution authorizing the city manager to convey the easement as promised in a 1998 agreement.

The Citizens contend it is premature to hand CDOT the right of way for the highway project before an anticipated new vote on the entrance occurs in November and while the project is the subject of two outstanding lawsuits.

“Why the rush to convey the property?” Weiss said.

“Why be so stubborn, because you’ve made a decision at one point, just to push on through?” said Citizens supporter and former Mayor Bill Stirling.

“I just think it’s in very poor taste of them [CDOT] to go forward with this,” said Councilman Terry Paulson.

What to do with Highway 82 on Aspen’s west side has been mired in controversy for three decades. The debate heated up again this spring when the council took action to move forward with conveyance of the easement.

The council members who approved the transfer – Tom McCabe, Tim Semrau and Tony Hershey – have said they believe the city needs to hand over the easement so as not to jeopardize the project’s chances of receiving state funding in the next 20 years. State highway officials are currently prioritizing the state’s highway priorities.

They also contend CDOT will not build the entrance project if voters reject it in November and point to language in the city’s Memorandum of Understanding with CDOT that they say protects the city from getting something it doesn’t want.

The Citizens have circulated e-mail correspondence between member Lenir Drake and Owen Leonard, director of CDOT Region 3, in which Leonard indicates he doesn’t believe a delay in the conveyance would hurt the project’s chances for funding consideration. The group also points out that CDOT has refused to give up its power of eminent domain to take the property it needs to reroute the highway.

Aspen voters approved the so-called “straight shot” realignment in 1996. That vote authorized an easement across the Marolt-Thomas Open Space to build a two-lane parkway and light-rail corridor, linking the Maroon Creek Road roundabout and the upper end of Main Street. A stretch of the existing alignment, including the Highway 82 intersection with Cemetery Lane and the two S-curves that funnel traffic through the West End, would be abandoned.

Voters subsequently voted against funding for light rail and using the open space for a two-lane parkway plus dedicated bus lanes – actions that leave the Citizens wondering what CDOT can or will attempt to build there.

In addition to the Citizens’ attempt to block conveyance of the straight-shot easement, litigation filed by the Friends of Marolt Park over the use of open space for the highway and the environmental approvals for the Entrance to Aspen is still pending in federal court.

The Friends have been waiting nearly two years for a decision on its outstanding challenge against the U.S. Transportation Department. A ruling in the Friends’ favor could create a significant hurdle for the Entrance to Aspen project, even if it had funding, Vaughn said.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]

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