Many stories left a profound mark in 2009 |

Many stories left a profound mark in 2009

Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox Post Independent

As we launch into 2010, it’s time to look back, reflect and remember. Here’s are some of the stories that made headlines and impacted so many of us in the year that was 2009. The Year in Review is in no particular order and recaps will appear today and Saturday.

An economic recession that came to define the final year of the first decade of the 21st century, both nationally and globally, had a range of impacts in Glenwood Springs and throughout Garfield County and the Roaring Fork Valley region.

Garfield County unemployment hovered around 6 percent for the year, more than twice the normal rate, as two of the economic mainstays of the area, the construction and oil and gas industries, were particularly hard hit. (See Saturday’s story on gas industry impacts .)

Meanwhile, demand for human services increased, while donations to many nonprofit organizations dropped off. In one sign of the times, the area’s poverty relief agency, LIFT-UP, opened a new food pantry in the wealthy resort town of Aspen.

Several local businesses either closed or were forced to downsize as well.

In Glenwood Springs, the Watersweeper and the Dwarf artisans shop closed after 35 years in business. Spagnolo’s Pizza managed to reopen in a new location after being burned out of its previous location three years ago, only to close again after seven months due to the lingering recession. In Carbondale, the Sounds Easy Video store shut down after 26 years in business, partly due to the poor economy.

The downturn impacted local governments in the form of declining sales tax revenues, as consumers reined in spending.

Sales taxes fell 18 percent for the city of Glenwood Springs through the first 10 months of 2009. In Carbondale, sales taxes were down about 15 percent for the year to date through October.

Even with two large bicycle tours with more than 4,000 participants supporters and staff, starting and ending in Glenwood Springs in June, the business numbers failed to rebound. June’s sales tax numbers saw a 17 percent decline.

Those numbers meant tighter municipal budgets, including furlough days for Glenwood Springs city workers, and in Carbondale and farther upvalley in Basalt and Aspen, layoffs resulted.

Carbondale was forced to lay off four full-time employees in late October, including one police officer, while wages were also cut for remaining town employees and furlough days implemented for 2010. The city of Aspen laid off 12 employees.

New residential building starts, a major source of jobs as well as revenue for local governments, were virtually non-existent throughout the county.

Garfield County government, bolstered by a windfall in property tax revenues due to record high property valuations (based on 2008 values), was not hit as hard as municipal governments, although the next few years are expected to be a different story. In anticipation of declining revenues, county commissioners decided in December not to grant a 2 percent county employee pay raise for 2010.

The state of Colorado was also prepared to cut spending heading into the new year, including K-12 education, although the degree of cuts won’t be known until the first quarter of 2010. However, the proposed elimination of the Rifle Correctional Center as part of the state budget cuts, was taken off the table early in the year due to local political pressure.

The newspaper industry was affected too. The Glenwood Springs Post Independent cut staff, and its parent company, Colorado Mountain News Media, closed two area weekly publications just before the start of the year, The Valley Journal in Carbondale and the Spanish-language La Tribuna. One of Colorado’s largest and oldest newspapers, The Denver-based Rocky Mountain News, also shut down in 2009.

– John Stroud

The economic downturn was detrimental for several development projects in the area, some of which had already gained final approvals, and in some cases were already under construction.

Construction stopped on more than 100 new houses in the Ironbridge subdivision between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, as the developer, LB Rose Ranch LLC, filed for bankruptcy in February in the wake of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in the fall of 2008. LB Rose is a subsidiary of Lehman Brothers.

That meant buyers selected in a Garfield County affordable housing lottery for 10 of the 20 deed-restricted units at Ironbridge could not close on their houses in late February, as originally scheduled.

The fate of the 20 affordable housing units still rested in the hands of the bankruptcy court at year’s end.

The recession also prompted Sunlight Mountain Resort outside Glenwood Springs to withdraw its application to build 830 residential units and 110,000 square feet of commercial space at the base of the ski area. The development proposal had been scheduled to go before the Garfield County commissioners in January, but faced an uphill battle after the county planning commission recommended denial of the project over concerns that it was too big.

Late in the year, the Cattle Creek Colorado project, which was approved for 1,000 residential units and 30,000 square feet of commercial on 289 acres of land along Highway 82 near Carbondale, went into foreclosure. One of the investors was Related WestPac, which had suffered numerous financial setbacks on its Snowmass Base Village project upvalley. The Cattle Creek property sold Dec. 23 in a public trustee’s sale for $15 million to a firm called Carbondale Investments LLC.

In Glenwood Springs, developers of the Roaring Fork Lodge, a high-end hotel and condominium project on the former Sunlight Racquet Club site, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Roaring Fork Lodge LLC was also facing foreclosure on about $13 million in bank loans used to buy the property.

And in the midvalley town of Basalt, work on a new Whole Foods grocery store came to a stop due to financing troubles, and the project was mothballed indefinitely.

Among the construction projects that continued on track despite the recession were two new hotels at the Glenwood Meadows development. The new Marriott Resident Inn and Courtyard Hotel by Marriott were expected to be completed and open in early 2010.

And, one downtown Glenwood Springs building that sat idle for three years after a devastating fire, was gaining new life. Israel Shapira bought the Grand Avenue Mall building in June, and was pursuing a renovation of the 15,000 square-foot historic structure.

Another large residential development project, Spring Valley Ranch, announced late in the year that it would be ready to move forward in 2010 with phase I of its 1,000-unit development.

– John Stroud

Like most of Colorado, the Roaring Fork Valley was the scene of a kind of Wild West boomlet this year, when approximately 20 medical marijuana outlets opened up in towns from Aspen to Rifle.

Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2000, permitting the medicinal use of marijuana for certain ailments, making the state one of 14 with similar laws.

The first local outlet, known officially as a “dispensary,” opened in Carbondale on July 10, only a couple of months after President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made it known that federal authorities would cease prosecuting legitimate medical marijuana users and dispensers.

By the time Holder made the formal announcement of the new policy, in October, dispensaries had cropped up in several locations around the valley.

Not that the new herbal medicines have won acceptance everywhere, or had an entirely easy road to travel.

The towns of New Castle and Silt, for example, by year’s end had enacted moratoriums on permits for dispensaries in their towns, while they work on the town’s regulations to place restrictions on the industry within the towns’ borders.

But a court decision on Dec. 30 may make such restrictions a little harder to enact or enforce.

Arapahoe County District Judge Christopher Cross ruled that medical marijuana patients have a constitutional right to buy pot, as well as to use it.

The judge granted an injunction to a dispensary that had been allowed to open, then shut down by the city of Centennial, on the Front Range. The city argued that the closure was legal because the use or sale of marijuana violates federal law.

The injunction prevents the city from enforcing its closure of the store while the lawsuit continues through the courts, although the shop’s proprietor already has another shop open in another suburb of Denver.

By the end of the year, reports estimated that there were more than 16,000 medical marijuana users registered with the state, and perhaps 250-300 dispensaries in various cities and towns.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment registry indicated there were 181 medical marijuana patients in Garfield County, 134 in Eagle County and 85 in Pitkin County.

– John Colson

The year of 2009 was a relatively quiet one, politically speaking, for Garfield County.

Mike Samson, a former employee of the Re-2 school district, took office as a Garfield County commissioner in January after a relatively close 2008 race against Rifle attorney Steve Carter, which Samson won by a margin of 11,265 to 10,580.

Samson, who won the seat previously held by Larry McCown, joined incumbent John Martin, who returned to the board of county commissioners after beating Stephen Bershenyi in a similarly close encounter, 11,148 to 10,783.

Commissioner Tresi Houpt will face re-election in 2010.

The county’s democratic party, convinced that a last-minute barrage of attack ads aimed at their candidates was the illegal work of Republic operatives, joined forces with Colorado Ethics Watch to file a complaint with the state.

A group called Colorado League of Taxpayers ultimately admitted to violating campaign finance laws, and in April of this year was fined more than $7,000 for failing to report spending about $2,300 on attack ads aimed at Carter.

Local political observers were intrigued when Glenwood Springs native Scott McInnis, a Republican who has served in the state legislature and the U.S. Congress, threw his hat in the ring to unseat Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter in the 2010 election.

Another Republican, Grand Junction State Sen. Josh Penry, pulled out of the race recently.

According to the Rasmussen Reports online political watch, Ritter was running behind McInnis in a “potential 2010 matchup” on Dec. 14, with McInnis pulling in 48 percent and Ritter 40 percent.

Also in the race is Evergreen businessman and Republican Dan Maes, whose name was not included in the Rasmussen poll.

Ritter, who won with 57 percent of the vote in 2006, is expected to seek re-election.

The Democrats were shocked in this odd political year with the recent announcement that State Representative Kathleen Curry, a three-term Democrat from Gunnison, has switched her party affiliation to “independent.”

Curry said she did not feel she fits in with either party and has become disenchanted with the level of partisan politics that goes on in the Statehouse.

And besides, she told the Post Independent, her constituents in Dist. 61 do not seem to view her party label as all that important, as long as she continues to focus her energies on meeting the needs of the district.

She indicated she still plans to run for re-election next year, which if she wins will be her final term due to state-imposed term limits.

Curry’s district includes the eastern portion of Garfield County, along with Eagle, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Pitkin counties.

Turning to the Republican side of the local political slate, 9th Judicial District Attorney Martin Beeson announced on New Year’s Eve that he was pulling out of the race for the 3rd Congressional District, now held by three-term incumbent John Salazar of Manassa (See related story on Page A1).

– John Colson

Law enforcement authorities were perplexed when a woman’s dismembered body was found in an apple orchard at the Canyon Creek interchange of Interstate 70 on June 12.

The body – later identified as Janine Ann Johler, 38, of Aurora – was found by a teenage boy who was helping to clear out trash and debris that morning. Johler’s remains reportedly were contained in a bag of some sort, that might have been torn open by animals.

She had last been seen at her home on May 1.

The discovery kicked off a search by county, regional and state authorities that went on for two days, as officers searched for clues to the cause of Johler’s death.

Subsequent news reports indicated that Johler had a history of complaints of domestic violence to Aurora police, and a television news account reported she had “diminished mental capacity.”

A story in The Denver Post indicated she asked for restraining orders to keep Thomas Gordan Burns, 51, away from her. Burns reportedly was in jail on numerous charges, including domestic violence, at the time that Johler was last seen.

The investigation into the case, headed by the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, next made headlines when investigators went back to the orchard in October for a second search.

The sheriff’s office reported that it had engaged NecroSearch International, a nonprofit organization specializing in “the search for clandestine grave sites,” to conduct a two-day “environmental assessment of the landscape and wildlife” around the crime scene.

Garfield County Sheriff’s Office Detective Sgt. Don Breier said that the reason for the search to continue, more than four months after Johler’s body was discovered in the orchard, was because forensic evidence that could be helpful in solving a case can exist for years.

A check with the sheriff’s office on Dec. 31 revealed no new developments in the case, which remains under investigation.

– John Colson

Heath Johnston was charged with the first-degree murder of his brother, Sam Johnston, in January.

Johnston, 21, was arrested Dec. 15 in Rifle on suspicion of first-degree murder after police responded to a call of a shooting at Johnston’s home that same night.

Sam Johnston, 26, died from a shotgun blast to the back of the head while he was sitting on a couch in the home.

Since January, Heath Johnston has had several court appearances and the case was continued four times. Johnson ultimately pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in August, after prosecutors proved that sufficient evidence exists to support the charges.

Johnston underwent a mental evaluation at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo to determine if Johnston was sane or not at the time of the alleged offense.

Heath Johnston claimed in a police interview that Sam asked him, after asking Sam’s 11-year-old son, to shoot him because he was having troubles with his ex-wife.

Heath Johnston remains in Garfield County Jail on a $2 million bond. A three-week trial date has been set to begin on April 12.

– John Gardner

Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario made headlines early in the year after an anonymous e-mail alleged favoritism and impropriety on Vallario’s part.

The infamous e-mail was discovered to have been penned by an employee at the time, corporal Al Walker, and former jail commander Scott Dawson.

The e-mail alleged that Vallario promoted a detention sergeant, whom he was dating, over a more qualified employee. The message also alleged that the detention sergeant slept in her vehicle while on duty, and that she took more vacation time than she had available. Either of the allegations could have been criminal in terms of “stealing” taxpayer money.

Ninth Judicial District Attorney Martin Beeson had his chief investigator Beth Bascom investigate the allegations. Beeson found Vallario innocent of any criminal wrongdoing.

A new jail commander was hired in July.

– John Gardner

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.