Southern Colorado ranchers and the Army are headed for their first legislative collision Tuesday over a bill that would withdraw state consent for the Army to use eminent domain to expand the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site southwest of La Junta.
HB1069 is sponsored by Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, and Sen. Ken Kester, R-Las Animas, and it would refuse the state's permission for the Defense Department to condemn land in order to expand the maneuver site. The legal impact of the bill, if approved by the Legislature, is less certain and may only be resolved in the courts.
The bill will be considered by the House State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee on Tuesday afternoon at the State Capitol.
McKinley said Colorado law grants the federal government permission to use eminent domain, or condemnation, to acquire property for certain federal purposes. HB1069 would simply add a clause saying it could not be used to expand military training areas - meaning Pinon Canyon.
"We can't take the power of eminent domain away from the federal government, but we have a state statute that governs what eminent domain can be used for," McKinley said. "State law also requires that any use of eminent domain be approved by the General Assembly as well."
McKinley acknowledged that he has been given conflicting legal advice about whether the state could prevail in a contest with federal government over its authority to expand the maneuver site.
"We've been assured by the Legislative Council that the General Assembly has the authority to do this," Kester said Friday. "But we realize the Army's attorneys will have a different view of the matter."
The underlying dispute is the Army's desire to expand by 418,000 acres. The training area is 238,000 acres now and straddles the Purgatoire River southwest of La Junta. Many ranch and farm families in the region are opposed to the expansion, fearing the Army will ultimately take their land through condemnation - as it did when the maneuver site was first established in 1983.
"We're trying to do everything we can to stop or delay this because we believe expanding Pinon Canyon would devastate our communities and the economy of our area," Kester said.
Taking all that additional land out of private production, and off public tax rolls, would mean that the counties that contain a bigger maneuver site would stand to lose a significant portion of their tax base, Kester said.
The dispute over expansion pits Southern Colorado against the Colorado Springs metro area. While the ranchers and county officials around the maneuver site argue that losing that much additional land to the Army would cripple their regional economy, Colorado Springs officials have been lobbying the Legislature that an expansion is vital to the planned expansion of Fort Carson - and that growth means an additional $1 billion to Colorado Springs-area economy.
"We met with the Army and they laid out their plans and said they need to expand Pinon Canyon," Kester said. "They didn't change our minds and we didn't change theirs. So I think we're headed for a donnybrook."
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