Decision expected soon in Echo Basin feud
By Gail Binkly
It was a hearing to decide whether more hearings were needed. In the end, the Montezuma County commissioners decided to continue the original hearing.
If all that sounds confusing, it’s just an indication of the complexity of the issues surrounding proposed developments and ongoing commercial activities at the 600-acre Echo Basin Guest Ranch northeast of Mancos on County Road M.
“Right now, I’m just a muddle of all these different things,” said Commission Chairman Kelly Wilson after listening to the lengthy public-comment session Nov. 8.
The hearing’s continuation is set for 10 a.m. Monday, Dec. 6, in the commission room at the county courthouse.
The Echo Basin controversy heated up Aug. 16, when the commissioners were presented with a petition signed by more than 90 area residents asking the county to look into certain activities at the ranch, including concerts, shooting contests, and the planned leasing of “park models” - semi-permanent RVs.
The county’s land-use code, adopted in 1998, sets threshold standards for different factors involved in commercial activities, including noise, traffic, building size or amount of outdoor storage. When a commercial activity will exceed one or more of those standards, the owner is generally required to seek a high-impact permit and go through a public hearing.
The commissioners set a public hearing for Sept. 27 on whether the activities at Echo Basin need a high-impact permit, but postponed it until Nov. 8 at the request of Echo Basin’s owners, Dan and Kathi Bjorkman.
On Nov. 8, the commissioners heard an earful from the Bjorkmans’ neighbors, most of it unfavorable.
Many comments concerned the popular concerts held periodically at Echo Basin. Kerry O’Brien, a resident of County Road 41 near the ranch and an organizer of the petition, said one concert by the group Alabama drew 6,000 fans, according to the ranch’s web site.
That raises concerns about traffic on CR 44 to the ranch, O’Brien said.
Figuring two persons per car, he said, “That’s 3,000 trips one way on a narrow winding mountain road, and then 3,000 cars hit that road at one time going back. Some (people) have drunk too much – I think it’s a real formula for disaster.”
The road has no shoulders and is “not adequate for that kind of traffic,” he said. “What if there is an emergency?”
O’Brien — who lost his bid for the county commission this year to Gerald Koppenhafer — also noted that the electronically amplified noise could be heard for miles.
“I like music,” he said, “but if you have to hear music as a captive audience, music that you do not select, it’s noise.”
O’Brien said other problems stemming from the concerts include people parking on private roads, trespassing across private lands, littering, and in one case having sex on adjoining property.
Rollin Lunders, who lives on CR M.3, said the night of the Alabama concert, traffic was backed up for a mile beyond the guest ranch. He had to park his own car and walk the rest of the way home, he said.
“That’s not my idea of things running smoothly,” Lunders said. “That’s just a small example of the way the Bjorkmans have treated their neighbors.”
O’Brien also complained about shooting contests that have taken place at the guest ranch. “It sounds like a small war going on,” he said. “There’s semi-automatic fire for hours and hours at a time. They had a black-powder contest for days – that sounds like a small cannon.”
Tommy Eubanks, who lives east of Echo Basin, said activities there cause road damage year-round. “They say there’s no problem with the roads except when there’s a concert,” Eubanks said. “But there were hundreds of loads of logs cut off that place that impacted the county roads there.”
He also said heavy equipment operates continuously at the site. “It’s much like living next to a gravel pit.”
A woman in the audience asked the commissioners whether they would do something to improve CR 44 regardless of what they decided about commercial activities at Echo Basin.
“Did you vote for the road sales tax?” asked Wilson. The tax, which would have implemented a countywide sales tax of 0.55 percent to raise money for road maintenance, failed. The woman said she had, but the board seemed doubtful about the prospects for fixing the road.
In response to the comments, Dan Bjorkman said he contracts with the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office and Colorado State Patrol to provide extra coverage and help for every concert. The highway patrol watches the intersection of Highway 160 and CR 44, he said, while four to eight sheriff’s deputies, some working undercover, keep tabs on the crowd.
He said alcohol sales stop one hour before the end of the concert. He was skeptical of tales of people crossing private property, littering and having sex.
Regarding the shooting contests, Bjorkman said, “I hear firearms every day from where I live.” He added that the ranch does not have a range or allow guests to shoot on the property.
Discussion arose about whether the ranch should have to obtain a special-events permit for each concert, shooting contest, rodeo or similar activity, but Bjorkman resisted that idea.
“For me to have to come for special permits for events we have makes our business completely impractical,” he said. “I can’t run a business that way.”
The county has no provision for special-events permits in its land-use code at present.
Bjorkman, who bought the ranch in April 1998, said he believed his commercial activities were “grandfathered in.” That appears to be one of the key issues in the controversy; the land-use code says high-impact developments include those that change the use of the property or produce a change of more than 10 percent from the existing conditions.
Bjorkman said he has tried to cooperate with the county and be a good neighbor. He said the controversial Iron Horse Motorcycle Rally has for years been seeking to use his property, but that he had turned it down because Sheriff Joey Chavez didn’t think it would be a good idea. He said he believes the controversy was really generated by his plans to put a major subdivision in at the ranch.
Bjorkman withdrew the 80-plus-unit subdivision plan from the county planning process in February 2004 because he could not show that he had an adequate water supply for it.
“ In my opinion, this is all about my real-estate development plan that I withdrew from Montezuma County,” Bjorkman said, adding that he intends to bring it back to the table after he has water rights established.
In addition to the commercial activities, the commissioners sought comments on Bjorkman’s plan to lease “park models” at the guest ranch. Park models are RVs that are left in place a long time and may even have an attached garage or porch.
Kathi Bjorkman said allowing guests to lease the park models and leave them at the ranch was to eliminate having RVs coming and going constantly. The ranch has been used as an RV park for some time.
The Bjorkmans said although their sample lease is for 12 months, the park models would actually be occupied just six months of the year.
Commissioner Dewayne Findley said having year-round dwellings at the ranch appeared to be “a circumvention of our land-use codes,” but the commission stopped short of making such a determination at the time. Instead, the board called for continuing the hearing.
Lindsay said later that the purpose of the continuation is for the board to announce its decision, although it may take more testimony as well.
He said the controversy had demonstrated the need for the county to add a special-events permit to its land-use code. “Maybe the light bulb came on there, even if it’s a little bit dim,” he said, laughing.
Lindsay said the Echo Basin discussions helped show that parts of the code may need revising, but that it is a work in progress. “It’s going to take us years to figure this out totally,” he said. “The county’s only been at this six years. The city’s been at it for 50 years.”