SAN MIGUEL COUNTY PREVAILS AGAINST GOLD HILL DEVELOPMENT Public right to cross private mining claims affirmed by Court of Appeals
(SAN MIGUEL COUNTY CO 12-19-15)-The original trial court verdict on a case involving multiple entities, public and private landowners, and public access to trails in the high reaches of San Miguel County has been upheld. On Dec. 17 the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the original 2013 trial court decision in the lawsuit filed by Gold Hill Development Company, L.P., Plaintiff-Appellant against the Board of County Commissioners of the County of San Miguel Colorado; TSG Ski & Golf, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company; TSG Asset Holdings, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company, Defendants-Appellees. Well known Western Colorado realtor Thomas Chapman is a principal in the Gold Hill Development Company.
Grand Junction Attorney Earl Rhodes represented San Miguel County as it took the lead in litigating the case. “The County’s position that the public has the right to cross mining claims in the high country was affirmed by both the trial court and the Colorado Court of Appeals,” Rhodes said. “They have received very favorable Opinions, and the County is very pleased.”
For San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May, the Court of Appeals Opinion comes as welcome news. “It’s great when right prevails,” May said. ‘We’re really happy with the decision. It has taken a long time, and I hope this will finally bring closure.”
“I am ecstatic,” San Miguel County Commissioner Art Goodtimes said of the decision. “It is really exciting to be able to preserve the public’s right of access to Bear Creek. I want to thank San Miguel County and Telluride Ski Resort for working together so well, and the United States Forest Service for their help. We have had excellent attorneys and advisors, and we were affirmed on every count.
“The fact that this will set precedent is really exciting news for the County.”
San Miguel County Commissioner Elaine Fischer said that the time and money invested by San Miguel County to preserve trail access for its citizens were put to good use. “I think it is fantastic that the decision came out the way it did,” Fischer said. “This preserves the rights of San Miguel County citizens to access public lands as they always have, in perpetuity.”
The matter was both legally and factually complex, noted San Miguel County Attorney Steve Zwick. While the trail is a United States Forest Service (USFS) trail where it crosses Forest Service property, it becomes a public trail where it crosses the private mining claims, Zwick said.
But the outcome is not complex: “The Wasatch Trail along Upper Bear Creek will remain open to the public as it traverses certain private mining claims,” San Miguel County Parks and Open Space Director Linda Luther-Broderick said. The County stepped forward to defend the public right to access after Gold Hill Development Company launched a campaign to inform hikers that access to the trail had been closed, she said. Because San Miguel County has a dedicated Open Space fund that includes trails, the county was able to have its assistant county attorney research the matter for two full years prior to going to trial in 2013. “We have spent $180,000 out of pocket and five years of in-house legal staff resources to get to this point,” Luther-Broderick said.
Colorado Court of Appeals Justices Furman and Ashby note in the Dec. 17 Opinion that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying GHDC’s motion for a new trial, and affirmed the original judgment and order of District Court Judge Mary Deganhart.