|A divisive recall election and approval of a school bond issue; flooding along the Junkins Fire burn scar; a major upgrade of Westcliffe’s Main Street; a turn-around of the county’s real estate and construction industries; a ranch acquisition here by the Navajo Nation; and the tragic deaths of two young ranching brothers were among the headlines that made the news in Custer County in 2017.
The recall effort against all three Custer County Commissioners pitted neighbor against neighbor amid various allegations – some false – against Commissioners Bob Kattnig, Jay Printz and Donna Hood.
Five hopefuls ran for the three seats in the November election, including three candidates – Sandra Attebery, Kit Shy and John Johnston – who lost bids for office in the 2016 Republican primary elections.
In the end, District 1 commissioner Kattnig was booted from office and replaced by Bill Canda. In District 2, Printz was retained in a challenge by Attebery. And in District 3, Hood was ousted and replaced by Tom Flower amid bids by Shy and Johnston.
The three commissioners had various allegations flung at them, including the perceived mishandling of an issue surrounding our County Extension Office in which County Agent Robin Young was ousted; she transferred to the Extension office in Pagosa Springs.
Also in the November balloting, voters overwhelmingly approved a bond issue for the C-1 School District. The local district in May was awarded a $6.5 million BEST grant – Building Excellent Schools Today – from the Colorado Department of Education, if the district could get approval for a matching $4.7 million bond issue. The funds will be used for new infrastructure and renovations to the local school.
Voters also overwhelmingly turned down a proposal to continue discussions on a county building code.
Residents in the Wetmore and Greenwood areas were warned to expect heavy flooding from the Junkins Fire burn scar. The October 2016 fire burned more than 18,000 acres. Near daily monsoon rains – including close to five inches in one 24 hour period – caused Hardscrabble Creek to reach its banks, but the worst incident involved relatively minor flooding on the Greenwood Road with minor damage to bridges. Several local, state and regional agencies were involved in mitigation work and in October the state Water Quality Division awarded a $373,000 grant for more mitigation work.
End-of-year statistics showed that real estate sales in the county reached a ten-year high, with new home construction reaching a level not seen since 2002. Some real estate agents said numerous young buyers were driving the trend.
The Arizona-based Navajo Nation in October announced the acquisition of the northern 16,000 acres of the Wolf Springs Ranch in the south end of the Wet Mountain Valley for $23 million. Navajo leaders said they were acquiring ancestral lands, including portions of Blanca Peak in the Sangre de Cristos which is one of four sacred Navajo peaks.
The Valley was in mourning in September when two local ranching brothers, Ben Rusher, 28, and Weldon Rusher, 20, died in a drowning accident in a local ranch pond.
‘Twas a busy year in Custer County these past 12 months; here’s a chronological review of key stories from the Wet Mountain Tribune:
Westcliffe town trustees looked into the “tiny house” movement in an effort to gain more affordable housing. The trustees ultimately decided that there are few parcels in the town that would accommodate such development.
County Health Nurse Gail Stoltzfus retired after three years on the job; A new director, Elisa Magnuson, was appointed in July.
County-wide real estate sales for 2016 numbered 363 transactions, a ten percent gain from 2015.
The Wet Mountain Valley Community Foundation collected some $355,000 in donations through its annual Community Spirit campaign; funds will be distributed to 68 local nonprofits.
The county commissioners mulled a $5.4 million courthouse renovation; much of that would provide needed upgrades to the court room facilities.
Holly Anderson, principal for kindergarten through eighth grades at Custer County School, announced her retirement; and students celebrated their annual WinterFest.
Willie Quinney of Silver Cliff was named the Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the year, and Valley resident Douglas Schulz took part in the Trump inauguration ceremonies in Washington, D.C.
Local officials warned of potential extreme flooding this year along the Junkins Fire burn site.
Eleven future teachers visited Custer County School as part of “Experience Rural Colorado” recruitment efforts by the state to show future teachers the offerings of rural school districts.
International artist Christo pulled the plug on his proposed “Over the River” project along the Arkansas River in nearby Fremont and Chaffee counties. Christo had been seeking approval for the project for the past 20 years, but due to unrelenting opposition by some area residents, he decided to devote more time to other projects.
Wet Mountain Valley Stampede Royalty was crowned for 2017; Katlyn Freeburg is queen and members of her court are Megan Frahm, Brooke Flynn and Skylar Smith.
Sheriff Shannon Byerly said a local couple had been scammed out of $35,000 in a so-called “grandparent scam,” and county officials expressed concern about the $825,000 Wetmore Community Building renovation project which was two months behind schedule and $58,000 over budget.
A district judge agreed to remove Custer County from a lawsuit, initiated in 2012, between Wetmore residents Robert Hamilton and Mike Halpin over public access along dead-end County Road 390 in Greenwood.
The National Weather Service warned of “persistent drought” conditions in Custer County; the county initiated a county-wide fire ban due to the dry conditions.
State and local law enforcement officials investigated the death of 30-year-old Silver Cliff resident Ashley Brady. Originally believed to be a homicide, officials later said the death was a suicide.
Sheriff Shannon Byerly, in his annual report, said 202 crimes were reported in the county in 2016, a decline of seven percent from the prior year. And Custer Search and Rescue reported 30 missions in 2016, the most ever.
The 4WD Medano Pass road over the Sangres between the Wet Mountain Valley and the Sand Dunes National Monument was closed for several weeks for road repairs.
Heavy spring snowstorms got underway, with a foot of snow falling in Westcliffe and more than two feet in the mountains; several April storms brought the South Colony SNOTEL site to 103 percent of long-term average of snowpack. And the U.S. Forest Service announced the closure of Forest Road 386 – the South Hardscrabble Road – due to flooding from the Junkins Fire site.
Solvista Health, the four-county mental and behavioral health center, told of its plans to open a full-time office in Westcliffe.
Westcliffe trustees discussed the problems of deer herds invading the town; they learned there are few options to deal with the matter.
CCHS students held their annual prom at the Highway 96 Roadhouse in Silver Cliff, followed by the annual after-prom activities.
Easter was celebrated, with two Easter Egg hunts attracting scores of local kids.
The Colorado Department of Transportation announced plans for a major project along Main Street – Highway 96 – in Westcliffe and along nearby streets. The $1.3 million project – the largest ever here – included new gutters and sidewalks, new water and sewer lines, vintage street lights and paving.
The Armed Forces Appreciation Day was held at A Painted View Ranch; the annual event is sponsored by the local Outdoor Buddies organization.
Cindy Howard, director of the local Office of Emergency Management, said the Wetmore area “dodged a bullet” after several days of heavy rain – including just under four and a half inches in one 24-hour period – threatened severe flooding downstream from the Junkins Fire site. Some flooding did occur in Wetmore and Greenwood, and the road to Beulah was closed, but the severity was less than expected.
Custer County Economic Development conducted a three-day community assessment evaluation involving several state agencies. Among the community assets identified were active volunteerism here, strong stewardship of the natural amenities and a strong sense of community. Areas of concern include limited options of education, health care and transportation; a lack of affordable housing; and ongoing concerns with youth and childhood poverty.
The C-1 school district was notified by the state Department of Education that it would qualify for a $6.5 million state grant for building and system upgrades if an additional $4.7 million could be raised locally.
Twenty-one seniors at Custer County High School were awarded diplomas during graduation ceremonies; more than $300,000 in scholarships were awarded to some of the grads.
The summer tourist season got off in fine fashion with the annual Brew With A View celebration and the annual Memorial Day activities which included a parade and a formal ceremony recognizing the military and veterans.
An 80-year-old local man, Leslie Babylon, died in a one-vehicle wreck on Highway 69 north of town.
The Round Mountain Water and Sanitation District learned from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that its waste water treatment plant is not in compliance. Engineers say costs to upgrade or replace the system will be between $900,000 and $2 million.
The CCHS class of 1967 were honored guests at the school’s annual alumni banquet. And Westcliffe and Silver Cliff held their annual clean-up day.
Wilson Jarvis was elected president of the Chamber of Commerce; and postmaster Kathy Secora announced that she’s moving to Michigan to be near family. She’s served as postmaster since 2012.
The annual Shakespeare in the Park performances kicked off with “Romeo and Juliet,” and ranchers Randy and Claricy Rusk were honored with the Stuart Dodge Award for lifetime achievement for conservation efforts at the Rusk Ranch.
Construction was completed on the Wetmore Community Building and an open house and dedication were held to show off the $850,000 project. And the Cliffs Action Revitalization Team dedicated a new “welcome” sign on the Westcliffe/Silver Cliff town line.
The body of a man from Phoenix, N.Y. was located in the Sand Dunes National Monument; the man was last seen in May and Saguache County officials did not release his identity nor cause of death.
Former Valley resident Jerry Jobe was honored in formal ceremonies in Washington, D.C. Jobe, who served with the FBI, died on Sept. 11, 2010 as a result of cancer from the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon where he was a first responder.
The U.S. Forest Service declared the 16,000-acre Hayden Pass Fire and the 18,000-acre Junkins Park fire extinguished. The Hayden Fire started in July 2016 and the Junkins Fire erupted in October 2016.
The annual 4th of July celebration attracted hundreds of folks for the car show, parade, and annual fireworks display over Lake DeWeese. It was followed by the annual High Mountain Hay Fever Bluegrass Festival and, later, the 71st annual Westcliffe Stampede and the 70th annual Custer County Fair, where the 4-H and FFA livestock sale saw bidders spend some $162,000 on 53 animals.
Efforts to recall the three county commissioners got underway.
First State Bank in Westcliffe announced that Custer Bancorp, which owns seven Colorado banks, would merge with the new TIG Bancorp of Durango. The local bank has some $58 million in deposits and 14 full-time employees.
Pueblo dentist Dr. Kyle Schulz purchased the Westcliffe building and practice from retiring dentist Dr. Byron Beard. And Bob Thomason announced his retirement from KLZR Radio which he has been involved with since its inception 16 years ago.
Custer County Library Director Amy Moulton announced her retirement after five years of service. In October, Sean Beharry, formerly with the Florence Library, was named director here.
Former Valley resident Elisa Magnuson was named Custer County Public Health Nurse, and the Department of Transportation announced that its Main Street Project is nearing completion.
After a year in the Valley, Rotary Exchange student Alexia Stanciu of Romania bid farewell to friends and host-families, and Valley resident Jess Franta returned from Finland where he attended high school for a year through Rotary International.
Valley ranchers George and Zara Reis celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary; later, Mr. Reis celebrated his 98th birthday.
Moderate flooding occurred on Greenwood Road from the Junkins Fire site; county roads and bridges in the area sustained damage. And multiple agencies were involved in flood mitigation work in that area.
Classes got underway in the C-1 school district. Four new teachers joined the staff, and close to 400 kids were enrolled. And Rotary Exchange student Eero Prusti of Finland arrived in the Valley.
One man was arrested and some 7,500 pot plants were discovered on public lands in the San Isabel area.
Steady monsoon rains impacted the Valley’s hay industry, forcing many ranchers to delay their harvest. Typically, about 12,000 acres of hay is raised here.
The San Isabel Land Protection Trust held its annual picnic at the Vickerman Ranch; Vic Barnes was honored with the Alice Proctor Volunteer of the Year award. And SILPT executive director Ben Lenth announced that he was stepping down after eight years on the job; in October, Chris Skagen was named interim director.
Hundreds of folks attended the annual National Night Out event sponsored by the Custer County Sheriff’s Department. And Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials said they killed a bear in the San Isabel area that had entered a camper’s tent.
The county clerk certified the recall petitions to place the recall against the three county commissioners on the November ballot.
The Dark Skies group held a Solar Eclipse party at its observatory in Westcliffe; it was one of many sky-gazing parties hosted by the group.
Valley ranchers and brothers Ben Rusher, 28, and Weldon Rusher, 20, died in a tragic drowning accident south of Westcliffe.
Another pot bust occurred on public lands in the San Isabel area. Two individuals and 19,000 pot plants were discovered.
The county commissioners agreed to ask voters in November whether or not to proceed with further discussions on a county building code. The issue first surfaced when potential flood victims in the Wetmore area discovered that they couldn’t obtain traditional flood insurance due to no building codes being in place.
Hope Lutheran Church in Westcliffe celebrated the 100th anniversary of its current edifice. The congregation was originally established in 1872, and is the oldest Lutheran Church in Colorado. And descendants of the Valley’s original German Colonists held their second annual reunion in Westcliffe.
Some two dozen local 4-H members competed at the Colorado State Fair. Silver Cliff officials announced that the Dollar General retail outfit may build an outlet here; and during the annual Audubon Society bird census here, 97 species of birds were identified.
The arts rule in autumn in Custer County. The 11th annual Arts Hullabaloo was held in September, as was the the second annual Wet Mountain Valley Pilgrimage which allows locals and visitors to tour area ranches, historic sites and other venues.
The San Isabel Land Trust’s annual Art for the Sangres show and sale generated some $160,000 in sales. A portion of the sales support the Land Trust’s preservation efforts.
In a dream game, the CCHS Bobcats gobbled up the Swink Lions 42-32 in the homecoming game here.
Two men were arrested and 9,000 marijuana plants were confiscated in another bust near Lake San Isabel.
Five commissioner-hopefuls had their petitions certified to have their names placed on the November recall election ballots. In District 1, Bill Canda hopes to take Bob Kattnig’s seat if Kattnig is recalled. In District 2, Sandra Attebery, wife of former term-limited commissioner Lynn Attebery, wants Jay Printz’s job. And in District 3, former commissioner Kit Shy, former candidate John Johnston and political newcomer Tom Flower are vying for Donna Hood’s seat should she be recalled.
The Navajo Nation in Arizona announced that it had finalized the purchase of 16,000 acres of the Wolf Springs Ranch south of Westcliffe and primarily in Huerfano County. The tribe paid $23 million for the ranch, which is deemed important ancestral land.
County officials said real estate sales during the third quarter of 2017 were the highest in a decade.
The recall election successfully ousted commissioners Bob Kattnig and Donna Hood, replacing them, respectively, with Bill Canda and Tom Flower. Commissioner Jay Printz retained his seat. Canda and Flower were sworn in at the end of the month.
Voters also approved the C-1 School District’s $4.7 million bond issue; they rejected the measure to continue talks on a county building code; and in the board of education election, District 5 incumbent Terre Davis retained her seat; District 4 incumbent Bob Jolley was ousted by retired educator Doreen Newcomb; and in District 1, James Parkes took the seat vacated earlier by Brian Clince.
The Canadian mining firm Viscount continues its exploration of silver reserves in the historic mining district north of Silver Cliff.
American Legion Post 170 hosted its annual Veteran’s Day banquet; wounded warrior Shiloh Harris of Texas was the featured speaker. And three local teens – Michael Batson, Tyler Ferron and Scott Freeburg -- achieved Eagle Scout status.
The Custer County Historical and Genealogical Society disbanded after 20 years of service; declining membership was one of the considerations.
The county planning commission heard from members of the Dark Skies organization, which hopes to establish certain zoning regulations to prevent unnecessary lighting in order to obtain International Dark Sky Preserve status from the global organization.
Silver Cliff annexed a small property in the Westcliffe/Silver Cliff town line as a possible site for a Dollar General store. And the two towns, the county and special districts worked to establish their 2018 budgets.
County officials say new home construction in 2017 will likely be at its highest level since 2002, with 437 various permits issued, a 22 percent increase over the previous year.
The Valley celebrated the Christmas season in fine fashion with a parade, visits from Santa Claus, special gallery openings and other activities.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced that it would be using helicopters throughout the county to monitor and count big game herds.