October 2004

Mancos vet wants tougher penalties in land-use code

By David Grant Long

Gerald Koppenhafer, a Republican, is running for the county commission in District 3, the Mancos district. His opponent is independent Kerry O’Brien. Koppenhafer is a veterinarian. He served on the 12-member working group that created the county’s land-use plan, including its Landowner-Initiated Zoning concept, in the mid-1990s. He was interviewed by David Grant Long on Sept. 25.

DGL: What kind of person are you?

GK: I’m a person that thinks people should take care of their own basic problems and not depend on the government to do everything for them. I’m a person that, whenever I take on a job, I try to do it to the best ability I can do, no matter how much time I have to put into it.

DGL: What experience have you had that prepared you to govern the county?

GK: I’ve been in business for myself my whole life. I’ve been in the veterinary practice for the last 20-some years in this county. I was born and raised in this county. I’ve worked with the county commission in developing the land-use plan that was have in effect now. I’m also on the land-stewardship group the commission appointed a few years ago. It’s basically an advisory group as far as land issues, especially between the county and the governmental agencies.

DGL: What is the main issue you’d like to work on if elected?

GK: I think the biggest issue is to protect our water and our property rights and our grazing-permit rights in order to keep agriculture viable in the county.

DGL: What can the county do as far as protecting water?

GK: As long as they stay involved and make sure that our rights to our water are looked after and that we keep after the state to make sure they’re keeping our water rights intact, because all the water rights basically were supposed to be left up to the state, but the federal government keeps infringing on that more and more, and we need to make sure that the state keeps looking out for our water rights.

DGL: Do you know of anything that the federal government’s doing now in the county here that would reduce private property owners’ water rights?

GK: There’s been this push by the Forest Service and those that they have an instream right to keep so much water in the stream and if that occurs, then whenever the water in the stream drops to a certain level, then everybody’s going to have their water shut off. Because if that instream right is held up, then at a certain point there’s not going to be enough water in that stream, so everybody’s going to be shut down no matter what your water right is, because they’re trying to claim they have a better water right than everybody. . . . Basically, it’s been shut down right now. There was really a push to do this several years ago. It’s kind of been set back and not been said much about it here lately but it keeps coming up.

DGL: The last several years there’s been very little water to go around anyway.

GK: Yes, it’s been very, very tough. I own a place here in Mancos, a ranch, where I have water rights here in the Mancos Valley and in Jackson Lake water. I also own a place south of Cortez where I have water rights. I also own a federal grazing permit, so I have experience in all these fields so I have a feeling of what’s going on with those areas in the county.

DGL: What do you think of the county’s Landowner-Initiated Zoning system? Do you think it’s pretty much OK as it is, or do you think it needs changed?

GK: I think the system will work fine. If all of the rules and regulations that’s in the land-use plan are followed, it will work fine. I don’t think there’s that many problems with it. There’s a few little things that probably need to be looked at, but for the most part I don’t have a problem with it.

DGL: Do you think the rules and regulations have been followed?

GK: I think the process is being followed for the most part. I think the whole hearing process for any change of use of land – it’s occurring and I don’t see that much problem with the system that we have.

DGL: Some people say it’s complaint-driven as far as enforcing it. Until the county’s made aware that somebody is doing something that possibly violates the code, that nothing is done. It’s only when somebody complains. Do you think there’s enough enforcement for the code now?

GK: I think the enforcement’s there. Some people think it’s an after-the-fact deal on some types of industrial companies, that they are already going and then they realize they should have had a permit. I think basically we probably should have had more severe penalties for some of that. I think it would stop it all if the penalties for neglect to actually follow the rules were more severe it would stop all that.

DGL: Do you think the county needs to hire somebody or give the responsibility to an employee as far as enforcing the code?

GK: There’s not that many businesses going in that you could keep a person busy just doing that, I don’t believe. Most of them go through the process they’re supposed to. For those that don’t, we need to make the penalty more severe, and I think we can do that without hiring more people to work for the county. . . .

DGL: In Montezuma County there is a lot of support for private property rights. How far do you think that should be taken, as far as people doing whatever they want to on their own property?

GK: I think it’s very important that people can do basically what they want to with their property as long as they’re not endangering the health and welfare of their neighbors. If they can show an actual danger to their health and their welfare because of what somebody else is doing, then as a commissioner, you have to look out – that’s your No. 1 thing, as far as I’m concerned, you have to look out for the health and welfare of the citizens of this county.

DGL: The classic example is the guy that buys land next to yours and starts the pig farm. “Welfare” is a pretty broad term, but something that has an impact like that, with odors or noise — it’s kind of a value judgment, I guess.

GK: It is, but there’s so many state regulations right now on any type of odor-producing facilities, it’s just unreal, as far as their lagoons and everything else. If there’s any type of excessive odor or anything, they’re going to shut them down.

DGL: Do you support the proposed half-cent sales tax for roads? Do you think that would be a good thing?

GK: I think it will. It will help us with our overall [road] budget. We’ll be able to do a few other things as far as upkeep on the roads. I’m not against gravel roads. I think they’re fine. I drive all over this county in my veterinary practice, because all I do is large-animal stuff. It doesn’t bother me that the roads are the way they are, personally. Some people it really bothers, but I don’t think that’s a big concern of mine. I think we’ve got some intersection problems that are very serious, not so much the surface of the roads, but problems where the county road are coming onto highways. One is M and 491 out by the sale barn. That’s a terrible intersection. We have a lot of accidents there. It needs to be looked at to see if we can improve that. Some of the intersections are more critical than changing the road surface.

DGL: Most of the commissioners in the past have had other jobs or business interests. Do you think the position is evolving to the point where it should be a full-time job?

GK: I don’t think it’s a full-time job at this point in time. At the commission meetings I’ve been to there’s a lot of days where it’s not even all day on Monday, where they basically have the hearings and meet with all the people they’re supposed to meet with and it doesn’t even take all day. When you look at their schedule a lot of times they don’t have hardly anything scheduled in the afternoon. They go and look at something like that intersection or some other problem - they’re just out driving around the county looking at different things. There’s so many Mondays they’re just not that busy. They’re busy till noon and then there’s not that much going on.

DGL: There’s been a county commission for a hundred-and-some years and it’s been made up of white males with one exception, which was a four-year term for Helen McClellan. Do you see a need for more diversity?

GK: Basically, I don’t think that’s a problem. And I don’t think that basically – your duties are pretty well set down by the state of Colorado, what you’re supposed to do, and I don’t know that it matters whether you’re white or female or whatever, your basic duties are set forth by the state of Colorado. I think anybody can do those, as far as that goes. It doesn’t matter.

DGL: It’s gotten more common for women to be elected to political office. What do you think is preventing that here?

GK: I think a lot of that is, and everybody has their own opinion of it, but I think most women, just like my wife, who served nine years on a school board - it takes a lot of dedication to do that. And I think most of them [are] wanting to raise their family and have other interests other than going into local politics. I just don’t see that many of them involved in the city councils or anything in this county. And I don’t know why, to tell you the truth, because in a lot of areas there’s a lot more women getting into the political realm and why, I don’t know. I don’t think they’re suppressed here.

DGL: Cheryl Baker has advocated televising commission meetings in the same way the city council meetings are televised. Would you favor that?

GK: I don’t know that I would be in favor of doing that sort of deal because the only people that would be able to receive that are just within the city limits of Cortez, as I understand.

DGL: I think they could put it on the translator.

GK: I’m not that familiar with that whole system, so I don’t know how widespread it could be. There’s so many people that now are just on a satellite dish. They don’t even have essentially local cable or anything, anybody that’s outside of the city, they don’t have anything but a satellite dish. So they’re not going to get it.

DGL: I guess the idea would be that, especially because the commissioners meet during a work day, that more people would able to see what was going on that can’t actually attend the meetings.

GK: I’m not against that. I don’t know what it would cost. In my own mind there’s a lot of other things we could spend that kind of money on, because it can’t be cheap to put that on television for that many hours. A short commercial costs quite a bit and that’s just for a short period of time, so you put the commissioners’ meeting on for a long period of time, that looks like it would be expensive.

DGL: There is a free government channel you can broadcast on. The city does it – it doesn’t cost really that much.

GK: I’m just not that familiar.

DGL: You hear the term “good old boys” thrown about in reference to the county commissioners. What does that mean to you?

GK: I think a lot of people have known a lot of people that have been on the county commission. Some of them have been on there for a lot of years and they’re people that have been well-known throughout the whole county and they’re people that have done a lot of things for this county over the years. And I think a lot of people express them in that way. Then there’s other people that think that means that they’re doing favors for their friends or something.

DGL: Do you think there’s any validity to that perception?

GK: No, I don’t think so. Their jobs are so mandated as to what they can do and the people have such scrutiny over what they are actually doing, I don’t think there’s any validity to that.

DGL: What’s your position on the situation at Echo Basin Ranch? The hearing that the commission is eventually going to have on the kind of events that the ranch has been putting on. . . ?

GK: There’s a lot of different things that have occurred there over the years. I think you have to look at how much actual noise has occurred. And unless you have a way of measuring that to see if it exceeds the county threshold, that’s what needs to be done. If it’s exceeding the county threshold, something needs to be done about it. As far as all of their events, if they are actually endangering people in that area, as far as their health and the increase on traffic on the road to the point that it creates a hazard to other people, then it shouldn’t be occurring.

DGL: It sounds like you’re saying wait and see, get more information about what’s happening there.

GK: Basically, what he’s doing there now, in my opinion, he’s changing the use of the land, and any time you change the use of the land, you’re supposed to get a permit. You’re supposed to go through the process according to our land-use code, and he hasn’t done that, and until he does, then nothing should occur there. He should not be allowed to change that use of that land. Until he comes and applies to have a permit to change what he’s doing there, he should not be allowed to do it. If we have to stand up and say, “That’s it,” even if we have to get a cease-and-desist order, that’s what we have do. Because we can’t allow one person to – if he doesn’t want to follow the rules, then we have to take charge of it.

Basically, if you don’t have somebody complying with the land-use code, I think you have to use your authority to get them in compliance. And if what they’re doing is going to change somebody else’s life or livelihood, then it shouldn’t be allowed to occur.

DGL: You said there needed to be tougher penalties in the land-use code. Is that something you’re going to try to do if you’re elected?

GK: Yes. I don’t like these deals where these commercial and industrial deals get started, they change the use of something, even the ownership, then they start something back up again, and they don’t get permission to do that, then they come afterward and say, “Oh, we didn’t know we were supposed to do this.” Well, ignorance of the law is no excuse. Because they know they can come and the penalty has just not been severe enough for those types of deals. But I only have one vote, so we’ll have to see how that plays out.