Several Aspen Springs property owners recently voiced their concerns to Archuleta County regarding access to land deeded to an individual by the county for the purpose of watershed restoration, also raising questions of the legality of the deeding of the property.
But, a response by Archuleta County Attorney Todd Starr determined that the deed was legal and that, despite the deed, the public can still access the land.
More specifically, the property in question is located along U.S. 160 near Cat Creek Road in Aspen Springs, west of Pagosa Springs.
In 2007, the sitting Board of County Commissioners began discussions with an Aspen Springs property owner, Pat Ullrich, about deeding the property to Ullrich to facilitate watershed improvements to Stollsteimer Creek, which runs through the property.
That same board then agreed to deed the land, but the process was never carried out.
Minutes from the September 2007 meeting in which the decision was made are quoted as following in a letter from Starr to the five concerned property owners:
“Commissioner Zaday moved to allow Pat Ullrich to survey the County’s property located in Four Corners Vacation Properties Subdivision, which is currently deeded as a public easement to the creek approximately 1 acre and upon completion of the survey, the County will issue Mr. Ullrich a Quit Claim Deed based on the survey, allowing him to complete conservation restoration on the property through the Government Wildlife Enhancement Program through NRCS to restore Stollsteimer Creek Watershed, with no funds from the county, with a deed stipulation that Mr. Ullrich will deed the County a non-motorized easement for public use as open space when the land restoration is completed. … Commissioner Schiro seconded the motion and it carried unanimously.”
Then, in February 2013, the current BoCC followed through with that 2007 commitment, deeding the land to Ullrich.
At the February 2013 meeting, the board required that the restoration project be completed in 10 years and within 20 days of completion, Ullrich must execute and record a grant of easement for non-motorized access to and across the property for access to Stollsteimer Creek.
Then, this spring, the concerned property owners voiced several concerns about the deed, including its legality, the lack of notification sent to surrounding land owners and public access to the land (which is deemed to be part of the greenbelt).
Those concerns were, in turn, addressed by Starr, who wrote a letter to the concerned property owners. That letter is dated April 17 and refutes the property owners’ concerns by presenting facts and an analysis on the situation and its legality.
According to assessor records for the property, a plat was filed for the property in May of 1978 for Four Corners Vacation Properties.
According to Starr’s letter, that plat included the following dedication: “… and do further dedicate to the public forever the Greenbelt area as shown hereon.”
“This dedication was not limited by words such as ‘for the public use’ or other verbiage limiting the grant,” Starr’s letter states. “Rather, it was absolute and unconditional. When a dedication is made to the public it is tantamount to a dedication to the county.”
Starr’s letter continues, “The Grant Deed does not contain the words ‘and warrants title to the same’. Therefore, it has the force and effect of a deed without a covenant of warranty. Essentially, it is a quitclaim deed and passes only such title as the County was seized of at that time. If, as you have asserted, Archuleta County did not own the property in question then we transferred nothing to Mr. Ulrich and he is trespassing upon the land. If my analysis is correct and the property was owned by Archuleta County then Mr. Ulrich received title to the real property”
Starr then further refutes the claims that the deeding of the land was illegal.
“It is further my conclusion that the Grant Deed was not an Illegal act by Archuleta County and that it does not give rise to any eminent domain, ‘takings’ or to any other causes of action against Archuleta County. My conclusion is that should property owners within the Four Corners Vacation Properties development desire to assert ownership to the green belt they would need to pursue a quiet title action asking a court of competent jurisdiction to declare the status as to the ownership of the property. That is, asking a court to decree that they had some legal interest in the property after the dedication — which in my opinion is not the case. I further believe that this would have to be accomplished prior to any action against the County — that is, first there would need to be a determination that Four Corners vacation Properties had some interest that could have been taken. Please note, that even if the court were to determine my analysis were incorrect and enter a decree quieting title in the name of Four Corners vacation Properties I still do not believe a takings occurred since then the court would be in effect saying the county didn’t own the property and since we didn’t warrant title all the Court would decree is that the Grant Deed was of no effect and that Mr. Ulrich proceeded at his own detriment.
In finishing the letter, Starr further wrote that a “preliminary and non-exhaustive” review of the property indicated that it was zoned commercial in 2006 (when much of the county was zoned), and that, at the time, the Aspen Springs community brought forward its own zoning plan.
“I mention this only because the fact that the community is allowed a ‘greenbelt’ over which you now assert ownership to be zoned commercial seems inconsistent at best,” Starr wrote.