Midvalley group seeking secession from Eagle County must collect signatures to advance
A citizens’ group that wants to pull the midvalley out of Eagle County and annex into Pitkin County is going to have to beat the streets and knock on doors if it wants to pursue its cause.
The group, Our Valley Our Voice, failed Tuesday to persuade the Eagle County Commissioners to refer a question to the ballot in November.
The commissioners unanimously said they felt Colorado statutes spell out a clear procedure for adjusting county lines. A law that has been in the books since 1887 requires that it be undertaken by petition.
Under the law, Our Valley Our Voice would have to collect signatures from 50 percent of the taxpaying electors of the territory to be “stricken.” In this case, that’s the Roaring Fork Valley portion of Eagle County — El Jebel and parts of Basalt, Missouri Heights, Emma and Fryingpan Valley.
Our Valley Our Voice says that would require collecting between 4,500 and 5,500 signatures. That appears to be a high estimate. Eagle County estimates that its portion of the Roaring Fork Valley has 8,335 residents. Even if all of them qualified as taxpaying electors, that would require 4,168 signatures.
Group spokesman Michael McVoy said in a presentation to the commissioners in Eagle Tuesday that the 1887 law has ambiguous and outdated language. For example, it’s confusing what “taxpaying electors” meant, he said. Members of the group feel the requirement to collect the high number of signatures will doom the effort to failure.
“What we really believe is that you have the authority to place this on the ballot,” he said. He later added putting it on the ballot “is the right thing to do.”
The group also is lobbying Pitkin County to refer the issue to the ballot. A transfer of the midvalley from Eagle to Pitkin County would have approved by the majority of voters of both counties.
Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu told the commissioners he believes the county must follow the petition procedure addressed by state statute and that they cannot refer it to the ballot. If the group collects enough signatures, and meets some other legal criteria, the commissioners would have virtually no say on the matter. The question would automatically advance to the ballot.
Our Valley Our Voice members contended that the mid-Roaring Fork Valley has more of an economic and social connection to Pitkin County than to Eagle County, as well as the obvious physical ties. They said county lines should have been designed around watersheds.
Basalt Councilwoman Jennifer Riffle attended the commissioners’ meeting in Eagle Tuesday to speak in support of placing the issue on the ballot.
“It just makes sense for the Roaring Fork Valley to be cohesive,” Riffle said. She noted that Basalt is currently divided between Eagle and Pitkin counties.
Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt urged the county commissioners Tuesday to get an outside attorney’s advice on whether or not they could place the issue on the ballot without the petition. She said a vote in November could be an “end-all” on the secession issue.
The idea of transferring from Eagle County to Pitkin County has come up at least two other times — in the late 1980s and the early 2000s. It fizzled both times before advancing to the ballot.
Some midvalley residents are adamant that the area shares more in common with Pitkin County. Other midvalley residents shudder at the thought of being under Pitkin County’s thumb.
The Eagle County commissioners conceded that the county boundaries are “odd” but that it’s not unusual for an area in a mountainous county to be physically separated from the county seat. The county seat of Eagle is 50 miles away from El Jebel via Glenwood Canyon.
“I feel sorry for you guys,” Commissioner Jill Ryan said. “The boundaries are really difficult.”
However, she also said Eagle County government has a high regard for its Roaring Fork Valley constituency and a high sense of responsibility to it despite the physical separation.
“The Roaring Fork Valley is just as important to us as other areas of the county,” Ryan said. The county proved that with its response to the Lake Christine Fire in the Roaring Fork Valley, she added.
Whitsitt said the desire by the group to join Pitkin County is “not at all personal” against the current Eagle County commissioners. She thanked the county government for its response to the fire.
“When we were in deep do-do, Eagle County was there in a big way,” Whitsitt said.
Robert Hubbell of El Jebel was the only member of the public not affiliated with Our Valley Our Voice to speak at the meeting. He said he appreciated the job Eagle County does governing in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The commissioners said the petition process is the best way to give all Eagle County residents in the midvalley an opportunity to weigh in on the issue of where they belong. If the question were placed on the ballots of Eagle and Pitkin counties, then residents of the counties as a whole would determine the issue. Residents of the Roaring Fork portion of Eagle County could oppose the measure at the ballot box, but still find themselves stricken from Eagle County and annexed by Pitkin County if the majority of voters countywide favored the move.
“The right thing to do is let the people that live in that part of the county decide,” said Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney. And the best way for them to decide is by the petition, she said. If there were a strong sentiment to transfer counties, the necessary signatures would be collected.
Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry expressed a unanimous sentiment of the board members by telling Our Valley Our Voice that its staff would provide help on legal interpretations, petition requirements and analysis of financial implications for Eagle and Pitkin counties of a proposed transfer.
Like Ryan and McQueeney, Chandler-Henry said she felt the petition process had to be honored.
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