GHDC Loses Access Disputes on Gold Hill Road, Wasatch Trail Access
TELLURIDE – In a major courtroom defeat for Tom Chapman, Ron Curry and their Gold Hill Development Co., 7th District Judge Mary Deganhart ruled on May 20 they do not have the right to access their private mining claims in Upper Bear Creek on Gold Hill Road, which traverses on the Telluride Ski Resort.
Furthermore, Deganhart ruled, trails that cross GHDC claims in the Upper Bear Creek Basin including Wasatch Trail and East Fork Trail are declared to be public.
Deganhart’s ruling comes nearly a year after the nine-day trial in Telluride in which the GHDC, as the plaintiff, asserted numerous access claims against the Telluride Ski and Golf Co. and San Miguel County.
At the center of the legal dispute was the historic use of the Gold Hill Road, which begins in the town of Telluride and then switchbacks southward until it intersects with the Telluride Ski Resort’s See Forever Run. From there it continues southward and up to the Gold Hill Ridge, entering the Bear Creek Basin where it ends on the Little Bessie Lode.
GHDC partners Chapman and Curry, who purchased three contiguous mining claims in Bear Creek in March 2010, including the Gertrude, Modena and Little Bessie, claim the road has been historically public, and that there is a public right-of-way where the road crosses private lands. Deganhart ruled that there was not enough evidence to support Chapman and Curry’s claims, and that historic access to the upper Bear Creek Basin during Telluride’s historic mining period came not from the Gold Hill Road, but, rather, further up Bear Creek, via the Wasatch Trail.
“Finally, it is noteworthy that there is significant documentation that was introduced that described the access to the area of the plaintiff’s mining claims via a trail in the general location of the Wasatch/Bear Creek Trail, and conversely there is no documentary evidence that ever describes or identifies a trail on Gold Hill with access to the plaintiff’s mining claims…,” Deganhart stated in her ruling.
While GHDC did have an expert witness testify he was “certain” Gold Hill Road was used by prospectors to gain access into Upper Bear Creek Basin, Deganhart ruled that the testimony and evidence provided by the county and Telski was not simply an “unsubstantiated” opinion.
“The testimony is supported and corroborated by ample documentary evidence of the existence of the Bear Creek/Wasatch Trail route to allow access to not only the plaintiff’s claims in Upper Bear Creek but other claims that existed as well.”
Because the defense for the legal dispute was expensive, Telski owner Chuck Horning cautioned against labelling the outcome a victory. “It’s good news in a way, but in another way it’s sad, because we had to take vital resources we need for snowmaking to defend a crazy lawsuit,” Horning said Wednesday. “I don’t feel it’s a great victory, but I do feel we overcame a great obstacle here. We spent way more money on this than I would have liked to.”
Deganhart sided with San Miguel County’s claim that the portion of East Fork Trail that crosses the GHDC-owned Gertrude claim is public under R.S. 2477 but the portion of Wasatch Trail that crosses the Modena claim does not meet the requirements of R.S. 2477.
However, on both GHDC parcels, Deganhart agreed with the county’s claim that the trails fall under C.R.S.43-2-201(1)c that states, “All roads over private lands that have been used adversely without interruption or objection on the part of the owners for such land for twenty consecutive years” are declared public highways. Deganhart, in her opinion, stated that both trails constitute public highways under that statute.
“SMC’s claim under C.R.S.43-2-201(1)c is granted as to the Modena and the Gertrude and that portion of the East Fork Trail as it crosses the Gertrude is declared public; that part of the Wasatch/Bear Creek Trail as it crosses the Modena is declared to be public.”
San Miguel County Attorney Steve Zwick pronounced himself pleased with Deganhart’s ruling. “The judge’s ruling is consistent with what we were requesting,” Zwick said. “Obviously, I am very pleased with our outcome,” he added.
“The backcountry issue is going to be resolved,” Horning said. “Occasionally, you are going to win.”
The ruling could mark the end of the land disputes in the Upper Bear Creek Basin sparked sparked by Chapman after he and Curry purchased the Modena, Gertrude and Little Bessie parcels for $246,000 in 2010. Since then, Chapman has come up with a barrage of development ideas for the Telluride community, ranging from operating a small silver mine on the claims to an ecotourism facility, a modern European hut and even a private helicopter-assisted ski area anchored by his mining claims.
Chapman has a storied past of purchasing land inholdings in the West and then using them as threats to development. For example, in 1984, while acting as a real estate agent for a rancher, Chapman brought a bulldozer into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument to start building infrastructure for a 132-home subdivision. The move led to the National Park Service’s eventual purchase of the 4,200-acre ranch at $510 an acre, despite its $200-an-acre appraisal. In the early 1990s, he began building a luxury log cabin on 240 acres in the West Elk Wilderness near Paonia that he purchased for $960,000, stopping only after he had successfully negotiated a land trade with Forest Service in which he got 105 acres near Telluride that he then sold for more than $4 million. Chapman is also the owner of Casa Barranca, a 6,669-square-foot luxury home inside the boundaries of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Chapman could not be reached for comment on Wednesday morning; it is not known if he intends to appeal.
While he was pleased with the ruling in the dispute, Horning said he was particularly impressed with his legal team led by John Horn and the thoroughness of Deganhart in what was a complicated case.
“John Horn spent a lot of time organizing all the data and it was an amazing process,” Horning said. “I was really surprised and pleased on the amount of effort the judge put into this case. She took the case very seriously. I’m not sure I have ever seen anybody look at the details as carefully and thoughtfully as she did.”