County proves to be no 'hog' heaven
By Gail Binkly
Get your motors running — head out on the highway — but head away from Echo Basin Ranch.
That was the message given to thousands of bikers in late August when they arrived in Montezuma County for the Rally in the Rockies motorcycle rally and found it cancelled.
Montezuma County commissioners had denied the rally and its site, Echo Basin, a special-use high-impact permit for the event, voting unanimously on July 10 to reject the application because of “health and safety reasons.”
That appeared to put an end to plans for the biker get-together, planned Aug. 31-Sept. 4 at the 600-acre ranch near Mancos, Colo.
However, organizers plowed ahead with plans for the rally anyway, maintaining that they did not need a permit because they believed commercial activities at Echo Basin were “grandfathered” because some activities had taken place at the guest ranch prior to July 20, 1998, when the county adopted its land-use code.
The Rally in the Rockies web site continued to announce for months that the rally was still on and had not been cancelled.
The county sought an injunction to stop the rally from proceeding, and in a ruling issued Aug. 27, District Judge Sharon Hansen granted a preliminary injunction enjoining the Rally in the Rockies and Echo Basin “from conducting the Rally in the Rockies and its associated activities at the Echo Basin Ranch.”
Under the original terms of the preliminary injunction, only overnight camping would be permitted, with no more than 600 campers allowed. That was later increased to 1,200 campers through an agreement between the county and the ranch.
Organizers sought an emergency stay of the injunction from the Colorado Court of Appeals in Denver, but the court denied that request late Aug. 29, saying the decision to grant the injunction “lies within the sound discretion of the trial court.”
Finally, on Aug. 30, the rally web site stated that “the Rally is officially shut down.”
All events were cancelled, including a planned biker parade in Durango on Sunday.
That left bikers, many of whom had traveled long distances to the event, grumbling, and vendors, who’d hoped to rake in money at the gathering, scrambling for other ways to sell their wares.
Echo Basin Ranch owner Dan Bjorkman called the shutdown “a public- relations nightmare,” while rally director Dan Bradshaw threatened to sue Montezuma County for the lost revenues and complained that the decision showed a prejudice against bikers, according to published reports.
On the rally web site he called Hansen’s decision “illegal and immoral.”
The web site’s open forum was full of comments such as, “I think the court ruling sucks” and, “IM STILL COMING, I GO TO RALLIES TO HANG OUT WITH OTHER BIKERS,MONTEZUMA COUNTY OFFICIALS AND THE SOUTHERN UTES CAN KISS MY ASS.”
“We lost. You won,” Bjorkman told the county commissioners at yet another hearing Aug. 30 — this one regarding possible liquor-license violations at his ranch.
“There are no winners today, Dan,” responded Commission Chair Dewayne Findley. “There have been no winners in this.”
Following the rules
The commissioners said all along that their position was merely that the county’s land-use regulations needed to be followed and public safety protected.
“That’s what it was all about, the regulations in the land-use code,” said Commissioner Gerald Koppenhafer, who represents the Mancos district. “They [the organizers] are the ones who decided not to go through the process, not to do any of the things we asked them to do.”
He cited the fact that Bradshaw and Bjorkman maintained they didn’t need a highway access permit from the Colorado Department of Transportation for the intersection of Highway 160 and County Road 44 leading to Echo Basin. CDOT officials had expressed concern about whether the acceleration/deceleration/turn lanes were long enough to handle the volume of traffic expected.
In addition, the county had asked rally organizers to obtain the support of law enforcement, but Montezuma County Sheriff Gerald Wallace, Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane, and Mancos Marshal Bryan Jones had expressed grave concern about the short time frame to prepare for the rally.
In addition, neighbors of the ranch were largely opposed to the biker gettogether, with its noise and traffic.
‘Free legal advice’
The court decisions affirmed the power that counties have to enforce their land-use regulations — despite the fact that state laws allow for only a $1,000-a-day fine for people violating such rules.
The commissioners had said they regarded the rally’s actions as a test of their code. If the rally was allowed to proceed without a permit, they believed, it would encourage others to thumb their noses at land-use rules.
The commissioners had been under fire from neighbors of the rally and others who charged that the board was not doing enough to stop the event.
The commissioners’ attorney, Bob Slough, had also been criticized, with citizens such as state Rep. Mark Larson questioning his legal approach.
“For all the people who were providing free legal advice, I think Bob Slough did a good job,” said County Administrator Ashton Harrison at a recent board meeting. “That’s just my two cents’ worth.”
After the rally was cancelled, Koppenhafer said he was not hearing much negative feedback from constituents about the county’s stance.
“When you explain to people that they [the promoters] just decided not to do any of the stuff that was required of them, most people say, ‘I didn’t understand that’,” he said.
The rally was to have had up to 8,000 attendees on any given day. Concerts by Bad Company, Rare Earth, Warrant and other bands were planned.
On Aug. 28, after the preliminary injunction was granted, Bjorkman called the commissioners asking advice on what to tell bikers who showed up at his ranch. “There’s 30,000 people that are going to be arriving in Montezuma County, and half or more are going to be expecting that they can camp here,” he said. “When we tell them they can’t camp here we’re going to have a real publicity problem. Where should we send them?”
The commissioners said they could not offer advice because the request for a stay of the injunction was pending. However, by Aug. 30 the sheriff ‘s office and others were handing out lists of local motels with rooms available and lists of other events in the area.
Bjorkman also asked the board whether he was allowed to have his concerts under the court order, but they said it clearly forbade the rally “and its associated activities.”
On Aug. 30, Bjorkman told the commissioners he had cancelled his liquor order, including a $150,000 order with Budweiser, and told the bands not to come, although Bad Company was already on the way from London. He said they would be told to go home.
He said there were definitely angry bikers. “Three guys rolled in from Oklahoma last night — two Marines and one Air Force guy, back from Iraq,” he said. He said he told them they could camp but there was no rally.
“If I had had to send those three guys down the road I might have gotten my ass kicked,” he said. “One was really, really pissed.”
However, Wallace told the Free Press late Aug. 30 that things had been quiet in the vicinity of Echo Basin. “We’ll see what happens tomorrow, but we’ve had no problems,” he said.
Bradshaw, director of the rally for the past four years, approached the county commissioners in April about having some of the rally activities at Echo Basin, saying he was having problems at its then-current venue, the Sky Ute Events Center in Ignacio, Colo. He and Bjorkman soon decided to apply for a high-impact permit to have the entire event at Echo Basin in 2006.
But at a public hearing before the commissioners on June 19, numerous neighbors voiced opposition to the rally. They expressed concerns about wildfire danger and access problems at the ranch, which is on a dead-end, two-lane road. Local law-enforcement officials said they could not support having the rally in 2006 because they didn’t have adequate time to prepare and to hire additional personnel.
The organizers asked for a continuance, so the hearing was extended until July 10. On that date, the commissioners denied the permit application on a 3-0 vote, noting that the rally still had not obtained a highway access permit or the support of law enforcement.
Meanwhile, the Southern Ute tribe noted that the rally was in its final year of a three-year lease with them and said they expected the rally to honor the lease. They later sued the rally for breach of contract as well as defamation, after Bradshaw allegedly told a Farmington reporter that the Utes had given $4,000 to the Montezuma County commissioners to have them deny the permit — an allegation firmly denied by the board and the Utes.
The Southern Utes went ahead with plans for their own biker-related activities over Labor Day, with vendors, beer sales and live music.
Roping and whittling
Before granting the preliminary injunction, Hansen heard eight hours of testimony on Aug. 25 — testimony that was frequently conflicting and often tedious, with occasional moments of humor, such as when a neighbor of Echo Basin tried to find the right words to describe the smell of sewage that was allegedly running from the ranch onto his property.
At the heart of the case was what sort of commercial activities had taken place at the ranch prior to July 1998.
The commissioners’ attorney, Bob Slough, called Perry Lewis, who said he had lived most of his life in the Echo Basin area and had run the riding stables at the ranch from 1993 through 2001. From 1993 to 1996, the site hosted weddings, square dances, roping events, and a “whittling seminar,” most of which drew crowds of 150 or less, Lewis testified.
The property was sold to a new owner, then sold a year later to Bjorkman in March 1998.
Loran Garvin, owner of the property from 1985 to 1996, testified that Lewis’s numbers were essentially correct, but said one weekend he had had about 1,200 people there for one event. “That was the exception,” he said.
Bjorkman said that, beginning in 1999, he had had numerous music concerts at the ranch, including one by Alabama that drew about 7,000 people. He said the county had not told him until 2004 that he needed to have a permit for those concerts.
He later applied for a concert permit but withdrew his application this year after the rally permit was rejected.
It was upon cross-examination by Slough that a statement by Bjorkman prompted the county to call for the liquor-license hearing.
Slough asked what arrangement the ranch had made with the rally, and Bjorkman testified that it was leasing his property “in toto” as of Aug. 24 and that the rally was in charge.
Bradshaw subsequently testified, also under cross-examination, that he did not have a liquor license for the rally. However, he said Bjorkman was responsible for overseeing liquor sales under his existing license at the ranch.
That led the county to call Bjorkman to a hearing Aug. 30 about whether he was violating state liquor laws, which do not allow the sub-leasing of licenses. Bjorkman then told them the lease with the rally had not started until Aug. 27, although there had been verbal agreements before that, and that no liquor sales associated with the rally had taken place.
The commissioners ultimately decided to recess the public hearing and wait to hear if any violations occurred over the holiday before making a final decision on Bjorkman’s license.
At the liquor hearing, Bjorkman said he had misinterpreted community support for the rally. Petitions had been left in retail outlets around the county asking people to sign under “for” or “against” the rally, and the vote was 1,000 to 3 in favor. That non-scientific sampling led him to believe there was more support than there was, he said.
He said he had gone to three meetings of the Mancos Town Board “and begged them to take a position,” but they remained neutral.
“Last night they had another meeting, and now they’re all upset because it was cancelled,” he said. “I said, ‘If you really wanted this event you needed to testify to that’.”