Political gadfly Larson seeks commission seat

An outspoken political gadfly decided to go all the way last spring, throwing himself and his considerable energy into a quest for a seat on the Montezuma County commission after no other Democrat stepped forward to seek the nomination.

Galen Larson, known locally for his personal philanthropy as well as his fiery columns in the Free Press, has been a longtime critic of county government and an advocate for more economic development, particularly to encourage agriculture, and for a revised land-use code.

With limited financial backing from the party and scarce support from volunteers, Larson had been waging what was essentially a one-man campaign until the Republican nominee, Steve Chappell, was chosen in August. (Chappell defeated incumbent Dewayne Findley.) Now, some party activists have been offering their advice and assistance.

So what started as a rather quixotic campaign has been building steam. Larson garnered the endorsement of the Southwest Colorado Greens and the Panther Press, the Montezuma-Cortez High School newspaper. One prominent Democrat believes Larson has a realistic chance of winning.

“I think it’s interesting that Galen’s running now,” said Chuck McAfee, who lost to Findley four years ago in the commission race and has been helping Larson in his campaign. McAfee said even though Republicans are the dominant party in the county, he believes people are ready for a change, as demonstrated by Findley’s defeat in the primary.

“I sure think Galen steps into an opportunity to make a difference,” he said. “When people start thinking about Galen speaking from his heart and doing it in a simple way and really wanting to make a change, they’re going to listen to him.

“I believe if he gets out and talks to enough people, I think he’s got a chance — there’s something going on that resulted in Dewayne’s departure.

“People are upset and looking for change and I think Galen is the only sign of change on the horizon.”

Larson, who describes himself as a “moderate liberal,” continues to plug away at gaining support among the county’s voters, a large number of whom are unaffiliated.

“You never know until the fat lady sings,” he said.

Larson said he’s in favor of the ballot question that would hike the county sales-tax by half a penny to improve roads. Likewise, he supports the proposed sales tax of 5 one-hundredths of a penny to go to the county fairgrounds and racetrack. If it and the road tax pass, they and the current jail tax would total a 1-cent tax for the county.

“I’m for any taxes that benefit the community,” Larson said. “This would be a boon to the area because the fairgrounds hosts a lot of events and needs to be enhanced.”

Larson sounded conflicted on the question of adopting a mandatory residential building code, but said it was “a necessary thing if we’re going to have any smart growth in the area.”

“How are we going to entice people to come here if we don’t have any standards to go by?” he said. “I don’t think we need any international building code or anything so heavily enforced as California, but you have to have some guidelines to protect people from poorly built homes — they’re a fire hazard and a danger to life and limb.

“But there’s a faction here that doesn’t want it and I don’t understand where they’re coming from.”

Larson was short on specifics when asked what he would want to see covered in a county-wide building code.

“That’s a pretty deep subject to put together in a hurry and I haven’t given it any study,” he said.

The county commissioners came under fire in recent weeks for shutting down the Four Corners Rally in the Rockies motorcycle rally, which was proposed over Labor Day weekend at a site near Mancos. The rally organizers sought a high-impact permit at the last minute but were denied, and the county obtained a court injunction preventing the rally from going on.

“The first thing I would have done is ask [promoter Dan Bradshaw] why he wanted to move from Ignacio to Montezuma County,” he said. “Then I would have called the Southern Utes and driven over and talked to them about why he was moving out of there.

“Then tell them what was necessary, the money we’d need to hire firemen and police and the highway patrol and see if they could come up with that, and if they couldn’t — end of story.”

Larson declined to say whether he would support a rally for 2007. “I’d have to find out some more information about it,” he said. “It might be good, it might not be good. How do we know?” Larson said he would like to adopt smart-growth planning if elected.

“That’s where you have planned development for the area,” he explained, “and utilize the amenities we have here closer to the cities.” Such growth would have to be “more conducive to getting the rural residents and the cities of Cortez, Dolores and Mancos to work together.

“That’s what still surprises me — there’s too much animosity between the three cities and the rural residents,” said Larson, who has lived for more than two decades on 360 acres near Cortez, land he’s donated to a conservation trust to assure it remains undeveloped after his demise.

One cause of this divisiveness, Larson speculated, might be that the commissioners are perceived as mainly representing the interests of the residents in the unincorporated areas of the county.

“The commissioners are in charge of the whole county. They should work with all three towns and see if they can develop a plan to bring in some industry. We’re a poor county, but we have a lot of amenities that we could use to make it a profitable county,” he said, and the creation of an attractive industrial park would be a step in the right direction.

Larson said that during a recent 5,000- mile trip, he saw a direct correlation between prosperity and higher education. “I saw a number of communities the size of Cortez that have a two-year college with a campus and dormitories,” he said. “Talk about a clean economic engine, I’d say that’s one of the best.

“Then you have an educated workforce, and your businesses will come,” he said. “We can’t have nudist clubs and strip joints and stuff like that here, we need something to enhance the area.”

The county’s land-use plan, known as LIZ for Landowner-Initiated Zoning, needs to be changed to make the process more consistent, he said.

“It doesn’t seem to have any teeth in its regulations, because every time the commissioners make a (land-use) decision it seems we get a lawsuit.”

Another of his goals, he said, would be to boost local agriculture. In particular, he wants to see more specialized, niche farming and ranching.

“We’re going to have to have small farms growing local produce and animals. We need a small (USDA-inspected) processing plant. We can feed ourselves, be self-sufficient and export the rest.”

Larson said he would support the county’s investing a significant amount in economic development, which would be a change from the minimal support provided in the past.

From Election, October 2006.