Garfield County commissioners hire outside legal firm to advise in dispute over Sweetwater Lake purchase
Garfield County will pay a Phoenix-based law firm that specializes in real estate and financial matters $30,000 to help the county commissioners build a possible legal argument against the transaction last year that placed Sweetwater Lake and surrounding property in the hands of the U.S. Forest Service.
Commissioners voted 3-0 Monday to retain the law firm of Fennemore-Craig attorneys to provide legal advice in their fight against plans by the Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to turn the area into a new state park. The firm is based in Phoenix but has offices in Denver.
“I think this is money well spent,” Commissioner Mike Samson said during the regular Monday Board of County Commissioners meeting. “I think this plan has been ill-conceived from the beginning, and I don’t think the federal government is following its own rules and procedures.
“I don’t think it was a clean deal, and we need to have questions answered before we go forward,” Samson said.
No members of the public were present to comment on the county’s move.
The state park plan was announced by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis in October 2021 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 of that year 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, to which numerous individuals, foundations and local governments, including Eagle County, contributed.
Sweetwater Lake, which had been privately owned and was proposed for a variety of different land developments in recent years, is located in remote northeastern Garfield County but is directly accessed from Eagle County via the Colorado River Road north of Dotsero.
Garfield County lent a letter of support to the Save the Lake campaign in 2019, by a 2-1 vote. But the commissioners have become adamantly opposed to the direction the land deal has taken since the state park plan was announced.
“A land development is a land development, whether it’s a private developer or the state of Colorado,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said in reference to the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s stated goal through the Save the Lake campaign to prevent private development of the property.
Various proposals in recent years had included a possible golf course and residential development or a water bottling plant. For decades, a private hunting lodge, AJ Brink Outfitters, has operated on the site using several structures that are now owned by the Forest Service and are at risk of being deemed uninhabitable due to years of deferred maintenance.
County commissioners have been sympathetic to concerns expressed by owner Adrian Brink about the future of her family business, as well as residents of the area who stand opposed to the state park plan.
“We need to take a close look at what’s going on there,” Jankovsky said. “I also believe this is money well spent.”
State and federal officials note that nothing has been decided regarding the park development plan, and that the proposal is subject to 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, but it’s possible the more-streamlined environmental assessment process could be used.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or email@example.com.
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