Who’re the pirates in mining disputes? | AspenTimes.com
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Who’re the pirates in mining disputes?

Some opportunistic Aspenites are relying on flaws made 75 to 100 years ago by Pitkin County bureaucrats to assert ownership of patented mining claims that are potentially quite valuable.

About 40 local residents have filed 53 quiet title actions in U.S. District Court, trying to establish their ownership of mining claims scattered in the mountains around Aspen. Those court actions contend the mining claims were unlawfully traded by Pitkin County to the U.S. Forest Service in a 1994 land exchange for the Mount Sopris Tree Farm.

In each of the cases, the plaintiffs contend that Pitkin County never gained title to the mining claims because it failed to follow procedures spelled out in state law for tax sales of property.

Reid Haughey, a former Pitkin County manager, said errors made by the county during the first half of the 20th century shouldn’t be enough for the default of ownership of the mining claims to the plaintiffs. He questioned whether their chains of title to the land are more solid than the county’s.

Haughey said the mining claim ownership is an important public issue because many of the properties are in pristine pieces of the county, including wilderness. They need to remain in public hands, he said.

Roots in silver crash

The roots of the ownership dispute reach back to the silver crash of 1893, when thriving towns like Aspen went bust almost overnight. Thousands of patented mining claims were abandoned when owners fled to seek fortunes elsewhere.

When counties didn’t receive property taxes on the mining claims, they arranged for them to be sold at tax sales. Colorado rushed to establish laws governing those sales.

One rule typically established specific times when tax sales could be held – often the second Monday in November – and required them to be held at a public place.

Another rule required the counties to make a “reasonable attempt” to contact the last known owner about the impending sale.

Pitkin County’s records show that dozens of tax sales of mining claims were held annually starting in the late 1890s. More often then not – at least until Aspen’s rebirth in the 1940s as a ski town – tax sales were ignored. The mining claims were considered worthless by most people.

When that happened, the county issued itself a treasurer’s certificate of purchase. That resulted in the county granting itself a tax deed to the property, according to records contained in various court cases.

Gary Wright, an Aspen attorney handling 51 of the 53 quiet title actions, said 46 of his cases focus on the county’s failure to hold tax sales on the specified day.

In the cases, Wright alleges that Pitkin County’s title to 46 of the mining claims is “void on its face” because the tax sale missed the deadline. The county treasurers during the decades of the sales – usually between the 1890s and 1930s – should have marked on the deeds why the deadlines weren’t met. Then, Wright said, the sales probably would have been valid. Instead, the line on the deeds for when the sales took place was often simply crossed out.

In his other five cases, Wright alleges that other laws governing tax sales were ignored.

Precedents in cases

The treasurers’ errors in bygone times have been enough to alter judges’ decisions in quiet title actions. Former Eagle resident Michael Dolan prevailed over Pitkin County in an ownership dispute in 1993 over the Mount Sinai patented mining claim on Aspen Mountain.

District Judge Peter Craven ruled that the county missed the deadline for a tax sale in 1911. “When the tax deed and the record before the court contain no explanation why the sale was held late, the tax deed is void,” Craven wrote.

In that same case, Craven found that the county didn’t do enough to try to locate the owner of record before the sale.

But Haughey, who was the Pitkin County manager at the time scores of mining claims were traded for the Mount Sopris Tree Farm in 1994, said he doesn’t understand the “link” between the flawed county procedures and current claims of ownership.

He noted that there is a long history in Pitkin County for “spurious issues” surrounding chains of title to mining claims. Aspen native Jim Blanning is serving a prison sentence for fraudulently creating chains of title that stretched from mining era owners to himself.

Haughey said he isn’t prejudging the validity of Wright’s clients’ ownership, but he said the public should make sure clear chains of title exist.

Pitkin County Commission Chairman Mick Ireland couldn’t be reached for comment on this story, but at the time of Craven’s decision in favor of Dolan in the Mount Sinai case, Ireland labeled other people who were challenging the county’s ownership of mining claims “land pirates.”

Wright said the county needs to examine its own actions in the ownership disputes.

“Pitkin County couldn’t get title insurance because they knew they didn’t own the properties,” he said.

Wright said some of his clients can show chains of title back to the time of the tax sales. Others claim ownership through “adverse possession” or use of the mining claims for a specified time.

Haughey said no one with a legitimate claim to the property should have a problem convincing a judge.

“Who’s calling who a land pirate?” Haughey said. “That’s really what it boils down to, who’s the pirate.”


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