A charge for stormwater drainage in the most urbanized area of the Grand Valley is an unconstitutional tax, a judge ruled Tuesday, prompting people on both sides of the lawsuit to urge unity in dealing with stormwater issues.

The Grand Valley Drainage District's charge, which for most of its residents is $36 a year, "runs afoul of (the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights) and is unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt," Mesa County District Judge Lance Timbreza wrote in a 43-page decision handed down a year after Timbreza presided over a trial on the case.

Mesa County and the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce sued to halt the charge, contending that it was an illegal tax.

While the ruling halts the district from continuing to collect the charge, it's silent on how or whether the district is to return the $7.2 million already collected over the last three years.

None of the drainage district board members now serving were on the board that instituted the fee and two said they expected to discuss what steps to take next in the coming weeks.

Board Chairman Cody Davis, who joined the board two years ago as an opponent of the charge, preferring that voters approve of any revenue-increasing measure, said he was surprised by the ruling.

"But hey, here it is," Davis said. "Let's move forward."

Mesa County Commissioner Scott McInnis said it's now time to deal with stormwater drainage issues across the county and said the drainage district should return to the bargaining table to "pick up where they left off and work toward a unified valley authority. And frankly, they don't have the leverage to say no."

Drainage district board members Jim Grisier and Mary Brophy said they hadn't had a chance to discuss the decision and couldn't immediately comment.

Previous board members had leaned away from an appeal in the event they lost the suit, but the subject has yet to come before the current board.

Timbreza's decision makes no mention of whether the district should return money to its customers. The county and chamber had made no request in their arguments about the money already collected.

"I think people are going to be furious if they don't return the money," McInnis said. In order to deal with stormwater issues, "They're going to need people's support," he said.

While residents were asked to pay $36 a year, many businesses paid much more than that, up to $10,000 a year, Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Diane Schwenke said.

"This is a victory for every property owner within the Grand Valley Drainage District boundaries, including many of our business members," Schwenke said, praising the decision for requiring the district to persuade voters of the additional need "as TABOR clearly intended."

The chamber and Grisier both noted that the need to deal with stormwater hasn't gone away.

The district has an aging, dilapidated system that must be addressed, Davis said.

"The overall issue is that it's not going to quit raining," Grisier said.

The threat of stormwater to the urbanized valley north of the Colorado has been overstated in any case, said Commissioner John Justman, a Fruita-area farmer.

He never bought into the district's runoff numbers because he saw runoff issues arise with his farmlands, Justman said.

"They kind of created some of their own madness," Justman said of the district.

"I am pleased that the protections of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights for taxpayers to vote on their taxes is being upheld by our courts," Commissioner Rose Pugliese said in an email. "This is an important win for our taxpayers and especially for businesses in Mesa County."

The drainage district charged businesses, churches, local governments and others with large-area parking lots and rooftops $3 per month for each 2,500 square feet of impervious surface, or surfaces that shed, rather than absorb water.

Residents were charged $3 per month or $36 a year.

In all, the district billed more than 40,000 accounts each year for the charge.

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