In 2019, rural Montezuma County pushed forward on recreation, economic development and solar energy. Officials addressed issues with social services, state gun control laws, better law enforcement and improved roads.
The parking lot for Board of County Commissioners meeting is a good barometer for public interest on an issue.
On Feb. 28, it overflowed. The topic of the meeting? Gun control.
Commissioners were responding to a new Colorado law, HB 1177, which allowed firearms to be confiscated from mentally unstable citizens under an “Extreme Risk Protection Order” process. The law takes effect in January.
Commissioners Larry Don Suckla, Keenan Ertel and Jim Candelaria declared a “gun sanctuary” to oppose the so-called red flag law.
As in other rural counties that opposed the law,, commissioners and many residents argued during public comment it violated the Second Amendment’s promise to protect gun ownership and denied a citizen’s right to due process.
Supporters of the red flag law countered it was a tool to address mental illness and could potentially prevent gun violence.
At the time, Nowlin said he saw problems with HB 1177, but he declined to sign a resolution that contained the word “sanctuary” because it would imply the county was outside the law. The sheriff takes an oath to uphold state law.
Trails and parking lotsIn April, Montezuma County built a 40-vehicle parking lot on the right of way of County Road G to handle increased use of Sand Canyon’ trail system. The Bureau of Land Management added a spur from the new lot to connect with the main Sand Canyon trail.
The BLM also is making room at Sand Canyon for more vehicles. When complete, parking lots will hold 80 vehicles, with more space for horse trailers. The original parking lot handled 20 vehicles, which forced hikers and bikers to park on the shoulder of Road G, creating a traffic hazard.
The commissioners are trying to persuade Congress to drop the wilderness study area designation for regional BLM lands. They met with U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette near the Menefee Mountain Wilderness Study area to argue against including them in a wilderness bill, but she disagreed.
The county requested that the San Juan National Forest allow motorized OHV use on a historic road that cuts through the Sage Hen area and connects with the Lower Dolores River below the McPhee Reservoir. Currently, the road is for non-motorized use, and the issue is under review by the U.S. Forest Service.
Montezuma County is in the running for a $2 million to $3 million grant from Great Outdoors Colorado to begin construction on the Paths to Mesa trail from Mancos to Mesa Verde National Park along U.S. Highway 160. The long-term goal is to connect it to Cortez.
Solar wave reaches countyThe county continued to advocate for solar projects in 2019. It agreed to install solar arrays on the Annex 3 county building, which houses the health department, agriculture extension office, senior services and veterans affairs.
In March, Invenergy, a Chicago-based renewable energy company, submitted a bid to Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc. to build a $127 million solar project near Pleasant View. The proposed project would generate 127 megawatts for Tri-State, enough to power 32,000 homes.
The solar panels would be on 1,100 acres of private land off County Road BB, 2 miles west of Pleasant View. So far, 900 acres have been leased by Invenergy in anticipation of the project moving forward.
Also this year, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe built a $2 million solar project to lower electricity bills for tribal residents in Towaoc.
An 8-acre hayfield west of the Ute Mountain Casino was transformed into a 1 megawatt solar array with 3,500 panels facing skyward. Internships were awarded to Ute Mountain youths to help install the panels and learn about renewable energy jobs.
County floats convention center ideaCommissioners advocated for building a convention and events center at the county fairgrounds. The county offered to fund construction if the city of Cortez and tourism groups subsidized operating costs. Another option proposed is to repurpose the old WalMart building into a convention center.
The county and city agreed a feasibility study is the next step. The proposed project led to some controversy when the Montezuma County Lodging tax authority suggested a plan to reroute funds usually allocated to the Mancos and Dolores chambers towards the convention center project instead.
County goes to courtOn the legal front, the county won one case and lost one, and both are on appeal. A third case is set for trial.
A civil lawsuit filed against the county by CO2 Committee Inc. claimed over-taxation. It was dismissed in June by District Court Judge Todd Plewe for lack of legal standing, but the plaintiff planned to appeal.
A dispute between the county and Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. over who pays for a $100,000 culvert was decided in favor of the irrigation company. District Court Judge Douglas Walker ruled that the county was responsible to pay. The crux of the case was whether the definition of “maintenance” within state statutes includes replacement. The county plans an appeal.
PAX 2013 Ltd., a Texas Limited Partnership that owns property along County Road 41 outside Mancos, sued Montezuma County in October 2018, claiming the road department maintained the road wider than legally allowed and caused damage. In March, Plewe denied a motion by PAX 2013 that sought to prevent the county from maintaining the road while the case was being litigated. A trial is expected in 2020.
Social Services investigatedIn August, a report was released of a nine-month investigation into child welfare cases at the Montezuma County Department of Social Services alleged dozens of violations of state regulations and administrative law, according to the Office of Colorado’s Child Protection Ombudsman.
After reviewing 15 child protection cases from June 2014 to December 2018, the ombudsman claims that Montezuma County Department of Social Services violated state law nine times and state regulations 58 times when handling 21 referrals and assessments.
The ombudsman issued six recommendations to help Montezuma County Social Services improve case practices, comply with state law and regulations and improve its relationship with the community.
For the 2020 budget, the county commissioners approved $315,000 for three additional full-time deputies and three additional jailers. They also agreed to $3.7 million for road paving projects.