August 2006

Motorcycle rally mired in lawsuits, controversy

By Gail Binkly

Enmeshed in a sticky web of lawsuits and legal questions, the Rally in the Rockies motorcycle rally is or is not scheduled to take place in Montezuma County over Labor Day weekend — depending on whom you talk to.

“It is my position that there is not going to be a rally at Echo Basin,” County Commissioner Dewayne Findley has stated.

But rally organizers say the event, scheduled for Aug. 31 - Sept. 5 at Echo Basin Dude Ranch northeast of Mancos, is a go — and they hope it will be there next year and beyond.

“We’d like to be here in the future,” said rally director Dan Bradshaw. “We think it’s a perfect setting. Everyone that comes in is just dumbfounded at the beauty of this place. ”

But on July 10 the Montezuma County commissioners voted 3-0 to deny the rally a special-use high-impact permit for 2006.

And July 31 the commissioners voted to file a complaint in District Court in Montezuma County seeking an injunction against the rally and Echo Basin and asking the court to help decide what activities the guest ranch can lawfully conduct without a high-impact permit.

Health and safety

In denying the rally’s permit July 10, Commissioner Gerald Koppenhafer, who represents the Mancos district, cited “health and safety reasons, due to the location of the rally and to the lack of cooperation and support of the agencies in the area.”

Echo Basin lies at the end of a winding county road, and Koppenhafer said he was concerned about traffic safety. The other commissioners concurred. But the hearing was hardly over before Bradshaw and the rally’s attorney, William Zimsky, announced the get-together would go on regardless, because they believe Echo Basin does not need the county’s permission to have whatever events it pleases.

In line with that, Echo Basin’s owners, Dan and Kathi Bjorkman, withdrew another application they had pending before the county, for a high-impact permit to have concerts. When seeking the rally permit, Bjorkman and Bradshaw promised to limit the number of attendees to 8,000 per day. Bradshaw told the Free Press they still plan to keep the number at 8,000, even though they no longer are seeking a permit.

“Dan Bjorkman and I feel that’s a comfortable number,” Bradshaw said. “We feel it’s necessary so the road’s not as packed and jammed. With all the problems with law enforcement and the like, we’ve got to put on a safe rally.”

Concerns about whether local law enforcement could prepare for the rally were one reason commissioners rejected the permit. Montezuma County Sheriff Gerald Wallace, Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane and Mancos Marshal Bryan Jones told the board they’d be glad to prepare for a rally in 2007 but didn’t have time to work out a plan by Labor Day 2006. They said finding additional state-certified personnel for the holiday on such short notice would be difficult. Bradshaw and Bjorkman’s decision to proceed with the rally regardless has left the agencies scrambling.

On July 24, the commissioners OKed an additional $38,082 from the general fund for the sheriff’s office for extra law enforcement over Labor Day weekend. Wallace said sheriff’s deputies will be put on 12-hour shifts and he will seek any available law officers he can find from out of the area.

Wallace said the sheriff’s office will be stretched thin over the holiday, with recreationists at McPhee Reservoir, the high-school rodeo finals at the county fairgrounds, and a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert the night of Sept. 2 at the Ute Mountain Ute Casino – not to mention the rally, if it takes place.

The sheriff’s office apparently will not have deputies patrolling the Echo Basin grounds, something that concerned Bradshaw.

“He [Wallace] did tell Dan Bjorkman that he isn’t going to work the rally,” Bradshaw said. “We’re still going to try to cooperate with the sheriff’s department. We feel that’s a necessity on our part. We like to have a safe rally but if the sheriff chooses not to work it, that’s his decision.”

Wallace said the sheriff’s office will respond to calls at Echo Basin, but won’t be on the grounds otherwise. “It’s a function on private property,” he said. “If they have an event that’s not sanctioned by the commissioners we will not have a presence on the grounds but we will be in the area.”

Whether the Colorado Bureau of Investigation will be at the rally is uncertain. On June 17, Kirby Lewis of the CBI told the commissioners that plainclothes CBI agents usually mingle at rallies, checking for outlaw motorcycle gangs or major crimes.

“Given the fact that it’s on private property this year, I’m not sure what role CBI would take,” he said.

Bradshaw offered, even after the permit denial, to help pay law-enforcement costs, but no agreement was reached. Wallace said Bradshaw and Bjorkman said they would approach the sheriff’s department again, but never did. “And I don’t know even if they did if we would take it [the money] given the apparent conflict with the event,” Wallace said.

‘Like M*A*S*H’

Law officers were not the only ones with objections to the rally. Neighbors voiced strong concerns about noise, traffic safety and possible wildfires.

And on July 10, the CEO of Cortez’s Southwest Memorial Hospital told the commissioners he was worried about handling the numbers of patients the rally would bring.

“We see about 35 ER patients a day,” said Chuck Bill. He said he contacted Mercy Medical Center in Durango and other facilities where biker rallies had taken place, and they said to expect four to five times that number during the event. “So we’re talking about setting up triage, having extensive delays. We’re looking at something like five days of M*A*S*H on TV.”

He said the expected cost to the hospital would be $70,000 to $100,000.

Highway access

There are also concerns about the intersection of U.S. Highway 160 with County Road 44, which leads to Road M and Echo Basin.

According to Nancy Shanks, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Transportation in Durango, Bjorkman applied for a highway access permit in June. CDOT requested additional information, including a traffic safety study, but had not heard back as of the end of July, so the permit had not yet been granted. Bradshaw told the Free Press he doesn’t necessarily believe he needs an access permit. “CDOT doesn’t have to give us an access permit,” he said. “This is on private property. . . [Bjorkman] hasn’t had to do this for concerts before.”

Bradshaw said he has “no idea” if the Colorado State Patrol will be working the intersection during the rally. “I can just put on a benefit, I can’t control the State Patrol or the sheriff’s department,” he said.

Shanks said a permit is needed. “They’re looking at at least doubling the traffic on a 65-mph stretch of highway,” she said. She said the average daily traffic on that stretch is 6,000 to 7,500 — more in the summer.

The left-turn lane onto Road 44 from Highway 160 is not long enough to handle many vehicles, Shanks said, and the right-turn/deceleration lane for cars from the east is also not very long. There is no signal at the intersection.

“Possible improvements would need to be made prior to any special event affecting a major U.S. highway,” Shanks said. “We want things to be safe.”

More lawsuits

Bjorkman and Bradshaw have sued the county in federal District Court in Denver, seeking an injunction to prevent the county from stopping them from having a rally.

The lawsuit claims the county violated the constitutional rights of the rally and Echo Basin in rejecting the permit. Zimsky has argued that such activities took place at Echo Basin before the land-use code was adopted on July 20, 1998. Bjorkman bought the property a few months prior. The previous owner had had small acoustic concerts, rodeos, weddings and gatherings.

Meanwhile, the Southern Ute tribe has filed separate lawsuits against Rally in the Rockies and Echo Basin. The Utes’ Sky Ute Center in Ignacio has been home to the rally for 13 years, and the rally was in the final year of a three-year lease with the Utes when Bradshaw decided to move.

He said he did so because the tribe had not paid for some maintenance as required in the lease and because of other things he considered a breach of contract on the tribe’s part.

What measures, if any, the county may take to prevent the rally are not certain. The commissioners’ attorney, Bob Slough, has told the board they have the right to close Road M, a dead-end road, if traffic becomes so heavy it poses a danger. “But you can’t stop just motorcycles,” he said.

If the county obtains an injunction against the rally, anyone violating it could be subject to fines and jail time. “The county can do what they want,” Bradshaw said. “I know what my legal rights are and what my constitutional rights are. We’re not the law-breakers here.”

Bradshaw said he based his decision to move to Echo Basin partially on meetings with the sheriff in May, when Wallace indicated he could handle the rally in 2006.

Wallace said he did meet with organizers and was supportive of the rally, but that Bradshaw and Bjorkman had misrepresented some facts, such as saying the neighbors had no problems with the rally and that the septic system was adequate.

The commissioners learned July 17 that tests of effluent leaving the boundaries of Echo Basin’s septic leachfield found contaminants in excess of state standards. Bjorkman had two days to file for a repair permit.

“We’re all for a successful rally but it takes both parties working together and we have not felt that they have worked with us,” Wallace said. “This is not a two-month planning event.”