September 2004

Echo Basin controversy coming to a head

By Suzanne Strazza

Despite a plethora of positive press about its planned artificial-turf golf course, the 600-acre Echo Basin Ranch near Mancos remains a source of apparently unending controversy. Loved as a concert venue, hated by some of its neighbors, the ranch and its proposed 92-unit housing project figure to be a major issue in the race for Montezuma County commissioner this fall.

But despite ongoing water issues, complaints and a petition from neighbors, and a shortage of funds, Echo Basin is moving ahead in one area: construction of its golf course. The artificial TourTurf course is tentatively set to see its first nine holes completed by snowfall.

In the meantime, the Montezuma County commission has set a public hearing Monday, Sept. 27, at 10 a.m. at the county courthouse in Cortez on whether the ranch is following county regulations or needs to acquire a high-impact permit for some of the activities that go on there, including concerts, rodeos, and a shooting event that took place last summer. Neighbors came to the commission Aug. 16 complaining that the noise and traffic created by such events are diminishing their quality of life.

Kerry O’Brien is one of a group of residents who presented the commisisoners with a petition with 92 signatures on it protesting many of the activities taking place at Echo Basin.

“Many of the commercial activities at the guest ranch are having negative impacts on people,” said O’Brien, who is running as an independent candidate for the commission against Republican Gerald Koppenhafer. The winner will replace term-limited Kelly Wilson on the board.

Furthermore, O’Brien said, “There is a land-use code that is in place and it needs to be followed as part of the high-impact permit process. This process was circumvented.”

The petition asked the commissioners to implement the process.

O’Brien asked, “Why was Echo Basin allowed to go forward without the land-use code being implemented? It’s the only thing that common folk have to help them out.”

Echo Basin has hosted numerous music concerts, Sunday rodeos and ropings, and one shooting event. The rodeos reportedly all take place during daytime hours because there is no outdoor lighting. However, neighbors complained about the noise from the loudspeaker.

Another concern of neighbors has been the proposed Echo Basin Acres subdivision, a 92-unit housing project proposed for the area that sparked outrage in many area residents. Many claim that when the golf course was first proposed, they were told there would be no residences associated with the course.

O’Brien agreed that at an informational neighborhood meeting, “They said they had no plan or intentions to build a housing development.”

The Bjorkmans appeared at several meetings of the county planning commission to obtain approval for their subdivision, but numerous people showed up to object that there were problems with traffic and water. Eventually the Bjorkmans withdrew their request until they could provide a more comprehensive plan to resolve all the issues.

More recently, neighbors have raised objections to “park models” being sold and possibly located at Echo Basin. Park models are small seasonal vacation homes that have wheels but aren’t designed to be moved very often. The Bjorkmans hope to someday convert RV sites at the ranch to sites that park-model owners could lease.

The common theme tied in with the golf course, the development and the general existence of Echo Basin is water. There have been disagreements about how Bjorkman is appropriating his share of the water out of Weber Reservoir. On Aug. 25, area residents had a meeting with Ken Beegles, head of Water Division 7 in Durango, which covers Echo Basin. They had been to see Beegles before to discuss their complaints and went in again to see what the next step should be. Beegles suggested the residents begin a campaign with the head people in Denver.

The questions residents want answered are whose water it is, and how much everyone is allowed to have.

A complaint about graywater draining inappropriately into a pond on the property has been resolved, but Bjorkman has a total of 12 ponds on the property and another resident, Roland Hoch, charged, “Seven are illegal — they have no permits — and of the remaining five, three got their permits after the fact.”

Bjorkman also has a “gallery well” on the river and is supposedly planning on building at least three more. Gallery wells can be constructed near perennial rivers or ponds to collect infiltrated surface waters, which have few impuerities.

The complaint by neighbors is that some of them have higher-priority rights to the water than Echo Basin and that the people who own the water are not getting their share.

According to Hoch and other four members of the Weber Reservoir Co. (Bjorkman is No. 6), Bjorkman is planning on augmenting his usage from the river with water from the reservoir.

The five members of the company claim that Bjorkman does not have rights to the amount of water he is planning on using. They have hired an attorney and say they will take the case to court if need be. Hoch said, “There is no way that this is going to get worked out. This will go before a judge.”

Dan Bjorkman was out of town and unavailable for comment.

This may prove to be a lengthy and heated fight. It may seem like there are a variety of issues being addressed at Echo Basin. But for those in the know, each issue is connected to all of the others, and as is often the case here in a water-critical area, it all boils down to who has it and who wants it.

But the golf course, which needs very little water, is moving ahead. However, Hoch commented, “The water issues will have to be resolved significantly differently before going ahead with the projects there, in my opinion. Why risk losing everything by spending money on a project that may get only 25 percent completed?”

The next step is the campaign in Denver. And, depending on who is elected county commissioner, things could look very different in just a few months.