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Pipeline: What is an easement worth?

Staff Writer

Pagosa Springs has a sewer problem.

This is not a new issue and anyone who has spent any time in the area has more than likely heard about the town’s sewage lagoons being at or near capacity, about problems with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, about the town’s unsuccessful attempts to expand the lagoons and, most recently, about the former director of the Pagosa Springs Sanitation and General Improvement District (PSSGID), Phil Stark, finally finding a solution to the problem. He negotiated an Intergovernmental Agreement with the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) and won a multimillion dollar grant to build a pipeline with several lift stations that would convey the town’s sewage to the Vista treatment facilities.

Just when the situation seemed under control, another snag has popped up.

“Just so the board is not blind-sided,” town manager David Mitchem explained at the May 7 PSSGID board meeting, “there is one property owner that initially indicated they were willing to provide an easement for the pipeline — one of the property owners has signed the easement while the other has not — and this property owner is having second thoughts, now. We are working through that process. We are looking at other alternatives and also working with that property owner to try to come to an agreement.”

Gregg Mayo, project manager in charge of building the pipeline from the town’s lagoons to the PAWSD treatment facility, explained that all of the property owners had agreed, in writing, to grant easements across their property, but now that the pipeline route has been set, one of the property owners has threatened to back out of their agreement on the grounds that his wife had not signed it.

Board member David Schanzenbaker asked if both the husband and wife were required to sign the easement. Board member Tracy Bunning, who also owns a local title company, explained that it was just like when a piece of property is being sold — if each spouse has their name on the title then both have to sign off on the sale.

Mayor Ross Aragon explained that the route for the pipeline was set and that it was too late now to explore other options, so the board would be forced to negotiate some type of agreement with the property owner, monetary or otherwise.

When the board convened a special meeting Tuesday afternoon, Steve Graham, the property owner in question, was present.

“The other property owners have provided easements without compensation,” Mitchem explained. “Well, we have one property owner that asked the district to plant four aspen trees, but with that exception, the other easements were provided without compensation.”

“Mr. Graham, when you signed this,” board member Don Volger asked, “correct me if I’m wrong, it was your understanding that you were signing a rough draft and you would get an official document that you and your wife could then review and consider signing?”

“If I recall correctly,” Graham answered, “my impression was that Mr. Mayo had to exhibit control of the right-of-way to move forward with federal money applications. Not wanting to hinder the town in any way, I signed and dated it. I felt pressured to provide him something, so I made modifications based on my understanding that this was only to basically secure the funding process and that the actual easement and specifics would be negotiated at a later date.”

“It is my understanding,” Volger said, “that we had to have easements, or at least the intent to grant easements, to go ahead and get the funding, and we were able to get that. Now, we are under a pretty specific timeline to keep that funding, and so if any of the folks who have granted easements back out, it puts the district in a very precarious position. I think you understand that. The rest of the property owners are willing to proceed with granting easements to get the project underway.

“This has been so frustrating, with the sewer plant that fell through five years ago, and then, finally, we were able to work out an agreement with PAWSD and we got the pipeline that seemed to be the answer to our problems, and now it just scares me to death that we may have something that isn’t going to move forward. What are you requesting of us to be able to proceed? Can you see a way that we can move forward without having to take this to court?”

“Yes, and I have provided that means today,” Graham responded. “I would agree with you; this is a very important project. It has been frustrating. I did perceive this pipeline as a very good solution to a difficult problem. Now that we are here, the timeline is closing very rapidly. When Mr. Mayo told me they were ready to go to bid within a month, I was surprised, because in my mind they still had no access.”

Graham briefly described some of the things he had wanted to negotiate with Mayo before the final plans for the pipeline were turned in, but since Mayo allegedly never got back to him and it was now too late to change anything, he was instead asking the town to compensate him for his easement by granting free sewer taps for six other properties he owns in town.

Other options were considered:

• The town could file an eminent domain claim, but there is no guarantee a lawsuit would succeed; the town would have to pay attorney fees, and, in the end, a judge would still require the town to pay fair compensation to the landowner. In addition, a lawsuit could take as much as 120 days, which would throw the project far enough behind schedule that it would lose the federal grant money.

• The plans could be redrawn so that Graham and his neighbors could use lift station 17, like he originally requested, but that would be expensive and time consuming, as well.

One concern, voiced by board member Darrel Cotton, was that if the board granted compensation to Graham, then all of the other property owners who had already granted easements, out of a sense of community and civic pride, might reconsider that decision and also demand compensation. However, since all of the other easement agreements had been legally obtained and were already on file, those property owners would be unable to now back out.

Another concern, voiced by Mitchem, is that, in the future, especially considering all of the trails the town plans on building from the Riverwalk to the Town-to-Lakes Trail, people might start asking to get paid for granting easements instead of charitably donating them to the community. Greed might win out over civic pride.

In the end, these appeals to Graham’s sense of community had no effect. Volger conceded that Graham had the town over a barrel, and the board voted to negotiate the easement with Graham in exchange for the six sewer taps. The board also promised to not begin pipeline construction across Graham’s property until after Aug. 15, due to a planned family reunion.

ed.fincher@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on May 16, 2013.