|After a long, protracted, and seriously expensive lawsuit regarding who owns County Road 390 in the Wetmore area, the case is ended… or is it?
Last Thursday the Colorado Court of Appeals, the highest appeals court in Colorado, issued its ruling in the case of Robert Hamilton v. Custer County that started back in 2012. The extreme speed of the ruling took everyone by surprise as the court made its ruling in less than ten days after hearing the arguments from both sides. Generally appeals courts take months, if not longer, to come to a ruling.
It was Hamilton and his ranch Las Mojadas that ultimately won the day with the court ruling that the Custer County Government was at fault. The history of the case is long and complex, yet, understanding the nature of such cases is fairly simple. The court found that “A county cannot abandon a county road and convey ownership of that road to a third party by deed.”
The tensions began as a lawsuit between Mike Halpin and Robert Hamilton in 1985 over a road easement, or in a more simple language, the right to use a road to access a property that runs through another person’s property. These types of disagreements are fairly common in mountainous Custer County, as roads often have to cross other properties to gain access to a home. Records are often poor and handshake agreements between neighbors are forgotten when the properties pass on to new owners. Add to the mess that Custer County is a fairly new county in the scheme of history and many roads have been around and used long before anyone can remember. In essence, roads are a constant source of legal dispute.
What makes the Hamilton v Custer County so torturously long and problematic was that at the conclusion of a lawsuit between Hamilton and Halpin, the court found that neither owned the easement but rather the road was a county road. A disagreement between two private citizens became a county government problem when it discovered it owned a road it had not maintained in some time, if ever.
The ruling last Thursday revolved around what the county did after it discovered it owned what is called County Road 390. According to the history that the appeals court published, on September 30, 2010, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners, Lynn Attebery, deeded County Road 390 to the Halpins. Five days later the Commissioners adopted Resolution 2010 14-10 that allowed the road to be deeded. It was that action, deeding the road rather than abandoning it, that was considered illegal by the appeals court.
The appeals court reversed the lower court’s rulings and stated the deed was invalid, which means that the county now owns, and has owned, County Road 390. As for Hamilton’s request for financial damages, the appeals court sent that part of the case back down to the district courts. So two main events came from the ruling last Thursday. First, who owns County Road 390 is now decided. Second, if damages are owed to Hamilton, it is still to be decided.
It is hard to tell if the county can appeal the judgement. Any such action would most likely involve an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. What is certain is that any such appeal process would be an unimaginably expensive and time consuming legal battle.
“Now that we own the road again, we will take care of it as a county road,” commented Commissioner Bob Kattnig, “We have to move forward and I hope that this is now over.” The county has spent $115,000 on the lawsuit so far, according to Kattnig, but that number could go up. Hamilton’s claim for financial damages is still a lingering question and one that only time will ultimately decide.
Commissioners Attebery and Kit Shy declined to comment when contacted by the Tribune, as they had not consulted their legal counsel. - Jordan Hedberg