Garfield County commissioners considering legal assistance in battle over Sweetwater Lake park plans
The Garfield County commissioners, at their regular meeting Monday, are slated to consider paying $30,000 for outside legal assistance in their fight against plans to turn Sweetwater Lake into a new state park.
Commissioners have been adamantly opposed to plans by the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to develop a state park at what’s historically been a private hunting retreat in remote northeastern Garfield County dating back to the early 20th century.
The plans were announced by Gov. Jared Polis last fall following a land deal in which the former private property passed through the nonprofit Conservation Fund into the fold of the White River National Forest. The $8.5 million purchase in August 2021 utilized a major grant from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as funds from the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s Save the Lake campaign.
County commissioners contend they were not consulted about plans for CPW to partner with the Forest Service to establish a state park at the 488-acre site, and that the governor’s announcement on site at the lake in October of last year caught them off guard. The commissioners in 2019 had voted 2-1 to verbally support the Save the Lake effort but have since said they never envisioned a state park as part of that plan.
“Due to the complexity of issues surrounding the recent purchase of the Sweetwater Lake property by the (Forest Service) and the associated desire to convert the property into a state park, it has become necessary to obtain specialized legal services to evaluate the circumstances and recommend options to the Board of County Commissioners,” Deputy County Manager Fred Jarman wrote in a memo before the board for the Monday meeting.
The request calls for a $30,000 supplement to the county’s general fund budget to the Denver law firm of Fennemore Law, which specializes in real estate matters.
Some residents of the Sweetwater Lake area, which is accessed through Eagle County via the Colorado River Road north of Dotsero, have also expressed concerns about potential increased traffic and other impacts from developing a state park.
Because the land is now federally owned, the park proposal is required to go through a formal environmental analysis per the National Environmental Policy Act. The county has requested a full Environmental Impact Statement, which could take several years to complete.
White River National Forest and state parks officials have said nothing has been decided, and that the purpose of the environmental review is to determine what level of development is appropriate for the property, and if a state park is even the way to go.
In questioning of EVLT officials at a June 7 work session, county commissioners had concerns about the way the land deal came together and whether it may have skirted due public process.
“Some of the concepts here question logic,” Commissioner John Martin said, calling the financing scheme a “shell game.”
Commissioners have indicated they would prefer the Forest Service lease the existing outbuildings to a hunting outfitter that has operated on the site for several decades and to maintain the existing primitive camping and trailhead amenities.
They have also decried the idea of taking property off the county tax rolls and adding it to the vast federal land holdings that already make up a majority of the land in Garfield County. Martin noted at last week’s meeting that the land sale equated to a loss of $11,000 in ad valorem taxes, not only to the county, but to school and fire districts and other property tax funded entities.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or email@example.com.
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