When four Pitkin County commissioners went to John McBride’s ranch in Old Snowmass last month, they did so under the auspices of an executive session to discuss a possible acquisition and conservation deal on the property. But all they did was ride around in jeeps, according to those who attended the private meeting of public officials, leading to questions of whether the secrecy was warranted.
Although it is required by the Colorado open meetings law, the commissioners did not vote to go into executive session before their field trip to the sprawling ranch, nor did they tape the proceedings with a recording device. Instead, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Director Dale Will took notes, which he said were insubstantial and not extensive, other than noting things like “We stopped jeep and observed view.”
“I was asked to take notes and that’s what I did,” he said.
McBride has been working with county officials in an effort to preserve and protect his land as he faces the reality of advancing age. He said he would rather leave a legacy that avoids subdivision and home-building in the pristine corner of the Capitol Creek Valley where the ranch is located.
Commission Chair George Newman, who attended the executive session along with commissioners Rob Ittner, Rachel Richards and Steve Child, described skipping the legal formality of voting to go into executive session as an oversight. He said he did ask prior to the field trip whether it was necessary to meet in executive session, and it was decided that a discussion of land price could come up, therefore necessitating a private meeting.
“If the discussions of dollars would have come up, that would have met executive session requirements,” he said. “We did not discuss that at all ... but you never know what questions might arise.”
Will, who asked for the meeting and regularly consults with the commissioners behind closed doors on land acquisitions, said the purpose of the field trip was simply to show McBride’s ranch to the commissioners.
“I needed the commissioners to see what we’re talking about,” he said, adding the commissioners, himself and McBride traveled the ranch in two jeeps. “There were no negotiations, no discussion of commitments.”
In regards to the state requirement that most executive sessions be recorded, Pitkin County Attorney John Ely, who did not attend the June meeting, said taking notes is acceptable as a method of recording if elected officials are in the field. Typically, commissioners tape their meetings when they are in executive session in the Courthouse Plaza room.
But Tom Kelly, a Denver-based First Amendment attorney who specializes in open meetings law, said discussions among elected officials in executive session must be electronically recorded. The only time the law grants an exception is if the recording device is inoperable or if elected officials are getting legal advice under the attorney-client privilege.
“I don’t think that the law affords them that,” he said last week. “When they go out to the ranch, for an off-site meeting, the statute does not allow the excuse for not recording it.”
Commissioner Mike Owsley said he didn’t go on the tour because “I didn’t think I needed to go” since he’s been to the ranch before. As to whether he agrees an executive session was necessary, that’s up to Newman in his capacity as the chair of the board, Owsley said.
“It’s a judgment call,” he said. “I think they probably could have done it without [an executive session]. It probably could have been done as a tour, open to the public.”
McBride said he didn’t know the visit to his ranch was noticed as an executive session. The trip lasted a couple of hours, and didn’t go into any great detail about what he and elected officials might do in an effort to preserve and protect his ranch as agricultural land, McBride said.
“It didn’t seem very executive to me. ... We haven’t done anything yet,” he said. “We didn’t discuss anything but I hope some day we do.”
McBride has turned to Pitkin County to help him and his family protect their thousands of acres from development after he is gone. The fear is that the land could wind up being subdivided and developed under a state law that allows such activity and overrides local zoning regulations. However, those who do subdivide rural land under state law are still subject to county codes, such as the size of a home that could be built.
The law, known as Senate Bill 35 — enacted in 1972 — allows one house per 35 acres on land that’s been converted from agricultural. It was meant to protect struggling ranchers but McBride said he believes that has backfired both because of the high value of land in pristine areas such as the Snowmass-Capitol Creek area and high estate taxes, which could present a liability for his children.
“I’m trying to keep it as open space. ... I’d like to see it stay as a ranch,” he said, noting that several land owners around him have sold out in recent years and more development in pristine areas has occurred as a result. “I want to insulate [my land] from the high values springing up around us.”
McBride added that agricultural land is disappearing all over the country, especially near high-end resorts. In Europe, strict zoning laws prevent designated land from changing to different uses, which is a model McBride said he favors.
Owsley and Newman couldn’t recall any other off-site executive sessions with commissioners in the recent past that didn’t involve a public tour. Newman said the commissioners could have gone individually to McBride’s ranch but from a time-efficiency standpoint, it made sense to all go together.
“It’s a little unusual,” he said. “I don’t think it’s something we’re going to do again anytime soon.”