Garfield County commissioners want more skin in Sweetwater Lake park game; OK more legal funding
Garfield County commissioners on Monday authorized spending up to another $30,000 for legal advice, as the county seeks to work with the White River National Forest in developing a recreation management plan for Sweetwater Lake.
The county has already spent $30,000 with the Phoenix-based law firm of Fennemore-Craig Attorneys to help it navigate the legalities around the 2021 U.S. Forest Service acquisition of the private-resort property in northeastern Garfield County.
Commissioners have objected to a proposal to turn the lake into a new state park, which, if ultimately approved, could be operated through a joint agreement between the forest service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
They’ve also hinted at taking legal action and questioned how some of the funding came together, involving multiple parties, to accomplish the $8.5 million purchase of the 488-acre lake property by The Conservation Fund (TCF) in August 2021. The fund then transferred the property to the forest service.
“This is the continued saga, and we will again need advice from the legal experts,” Commission Chairman John Martin said at the regular Board of County Commissioners meeting on Monday in Silt.
“Hopefully, we don’t have to spend all of that $30,000, but it will assist us in our cooperating status (with the U.S. Forest Service),” he said.
Also on Monday, the commissioners forwarded a proposed agreement to local forest officials requesting formal cooperating agency status, as the forest service conducts an environmental analysis of the park plan.
The agreement recognizes the forest service as the lead agency in conducting that analysis but offers that the county can provide some expertise “on issues such as socioeconomics and transportation that should be addressed,” the document states.
Commissioner Tom Jankovsky is proposed to be the county’s representative in those negotiations.
Ultimately, it’s about representing the interests of the residents who live near Sweetwater Lake, Jankovsky said.
The lake sits in remote northeastern Garfield County but is accessed via county roads from the Colorado River Road in Eagle County north of Dotsero. The access route is home to residents who have expressed concerns about traffic and other impacts from a possible state park development.
“We are having to go to a level of commitment to make sure the citizens of Sweetwater have a voice,” Jankovsky said.
“Just because the state government comes in says they think they can put campground at Sweetwater, it’s still a development,” he said in reference to the original Save the Lake campaign message put forth by one of the agencies involved, the Eagle Valley Land Trust, promoting public ownership over the potential private development of the lake site.
“If it were a private development, there would be a process to consider (resident) concerns,” he said. “So far, they’ve been left out of the process.”
Commissioners have also questioned the legality of a state loan that was made to help facilitate the land deal.
Jankovsky, at an Aug. 15 meeting, referred to that $6.2 million loan from the Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) program to TCF as “almost like a backroom deal,” even calling it “scandalous.”
GOCO officials defended the loan, saying it does have the authority to make such loans for real property acquisitions and has done so on many occasions in the past.
The loan agreement was nothing but above board, GOCO Director of Communications Rosemary Dempsey said in an Aug. 23 email to the Post Independent.
“The Sweetwater Lake loan was discussed in publicly-noticed, open-session meetings of the GOCO board’s finance and programs committees,” she said. “The full board approved the loan in a similarly-noticed, public meeting in open session.”
County Commissioner Mike Samson said Monday that he believes the legal pressure from the county has “gotten the attention of certain entities.”
“We intend to be a big player in this process,” he said.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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