Judge deals a blow to speculators who threaten development near parks
On May 22, 7th District Judge Mary Deganhart handed down a resounding defeat to land speculator Tom Chapman and his Gold Hill Development Company partners in their effort to privatize access to their holding on Gold Hill, south of Telluride by way of the Bear Creek Road/Wasatch Trail route.
“At the center of the legal dispute was the historic use of the Gold Hill Road, which begins in the town of Telluride and then switchbacks southward until it intersects with the Telluride Ski Resort’s See Forever Run. From there it continues southward and up to the Gold Hill Ridge, entering the Bear Creek Basin where it ends on the Little Bessie Lode,” Gus Jarvis wrote in The Watch, published by a Telluride advocacy group.
For those who disapprove of Chapman’s tactics, the judge’s ruling is cause to celebrate. Chapman has a history of acquiring land inholdings in or near proposed national parks and wilderness areas so he can threaten to develop them unless his demands for compensation are met.
But this case represents more than just a well-deserved defeat for an individual who games the system for personal profit. Chapman seems to take some perverse pleasure in thwarting efforts to preserve unspoiled landscapes — unless he is paid multiple times the assessed value of his property not to develop it.
Though nothing he does is illegal, Chapman has developed an unsavory reputation for his manipulation of public lands to his own profit, often costing taxpayers excessive expenditures to keep him from developing everything from trailer parks to European-style hunting lodges within parks and wilderness areas where he or his partners or clients have inholdings, like the mining claims he acquired in 2010 on Gold Hill south of Telluride.
Deganhart’s decision seeks to make some logical and legal sense of the often-chaotic antics of speculators like Chapman who seek to profit from manipulating land prices by threats to despoil public lands with commercial development.
The judge could hardly find a better prospect than Chapman for a test case. After acquiring the Gold Hill properties, Chapman apparently simply assumed control of Bear Creek Road without any effort to establish legal authority for doing so.
When Chapman claimed that Bear Creek Road from Telluride to his mining claims on Gold Hill was his exclusive access route to his property, he sued to force Telluride Ski Resort to open the road to year-round travel. The road would travel up the popular See Forever ski run, forcing it to close and shut off access to this important intermediate run for the ski program.
The resort challenged Chapman’s claim to ownership of the Bear Creek Road, while asserting its own ownership of certain other trails in the Gold Hill area.
San Miguel County claimed that neither of the two parties had any claim to the road, because it was a county road long before Chapman or the ski area made use of it.
In the end, the county’s claim was affirmed by Deganhart, quelling any scheme Chapman may have had to parley his control over the road into higher prices for his land.
More importantly, by declaring the road to be public, Deganhart made it impossible for Chapman to cut off access for backcountry skiing and hiking across his land, as he sought to do. Without access control, his mining claims are far less a threat to public access than if he had been able to privatize the road.
But this case is important for other reasons, as well. It set a high standard for proof of verbal claims or descriptions of trails and their uses. Though old-timers might recall different versions of the road and its management, unless verbal accounts were verified by the written record, they gained little credibility from this judge.
On the other hand, witnesses for the county were prepared with an abundance of verifiable evidence of their claims of a public road to the Gold Hill area.
The case sets a clear standard of what counts as verifiable information, largely from printed sources including verifiable texts, maps and photographs vs. memory, tradition, common knowledge or plain old folklore that often passes for evidence in such cases.
Up against the carefully researched and documented case presented by the county, Chapman’s case simply folded in the face of overwhelming evidence against his arguments.
Carefully followed, Deganhart’s decision offers a way forward to keep management of our public spaces like parks and wilderness areas in the hands of the people, while working to purge them of the desecration commercial development inevitably brings to our most sacred spaces.