Two Week Trial Full of Differing Expert Testimony
TELLURIDE – With a trial scheduled for nearly two weeks now underway at the San Miguel County Courthouse, it will be up to 7th District Judge Mary Deganhart to decide who’s expert testimony is the most credible and valid in the lawsuit filed by the Gold Hill Development Co. against the Telluride Ski and Golf Co. and San Miguel County.
At the center of the trial, which began on Monday, is the historic use of the Gold Hill Road. The road begins in Telluride and then switchbacks southward until it intersects with the Telluride Ski Resort’s See Forever Run where it continues southward and up to the Gold Hill Ridge, entering the Bear Creek Basin where it ends on the Little Bessie Lode. Gold Hill Development Co. partners Tom Chapman and Ron Curry, who purchased three mining claims in Bear Creek in March of 2010, claim the road has been historically public and that there is a public right-of-way where the road crosses private lands.
Telski’s legal representatives plan to assert in the trial that there is no public right-of-way where the road crosses private lands. Before the road reaches Bear Creek, it does cross one of the oldest mining claims in the area, which is owned by Telski. From Telski’s perspective it seems, without a public right-of-way across private lands, access to Bear Creek by way of the Gold Hill Road is nonexistent.
San Miguel County’s legal representation at the trial will use expert testimony to try to prove that the Gold Hill Road has never been recognized as a public county road.
Following opening arguments on Monday amidst piles of documents and blown-up historic maps, GHDC’s first expert witness, Bob Larson, said he is sure the Gold Hill Road was historically used by prospectors in the late 1800s to access mining claims in the Bear Creek Basin.
“I am certain that they did,” said Larson, a geologist, land surveyor and mine engineer from Ouray. “That is a route I know was being used before 1894. It was there early on in the whole prospecting scheme up there. That is the route they would have used.”
It’s expected that both Telski and San Miguel County will provide similar expert testimony disputing Larson. The trial is expected to end on Wednesday, July 3, but could be extended another day if needed on Friday, July 5. During opening arguments, it was requested that Deganhart hike the Gold Hill Road access area into the Bear Creek Basin before any decision is made. It is unclear if and how that request will be handled in the trial.
The trial is the latest salvo in a land dispute in the Upper Bear Creek Basin, sparked by Chapman after he and Curry purchased the Modena, Gertrude and Little Bessie parcels for $246,000 in 2010. Since then, Chapman has promoted a barrage of development ideas, including operating a small silver mine on the claims, an ecotourism facility, a modern European hut, and, most recently, a private helicopter-assisted ski area anchored by his mining claims. In 2011, Chapman said that he would post armed guards on the mining claims during summer months, to stop hikers from crossing them while on the Wasatch Trail. In response, San Miguel County later found documentary evidence that the trail had been used in the mining era as a public right of way.
Chapman has had a long career of asserting private property rights related to private inholdings on public lands. 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 eventually saw the National Park Service buy the 4,200-acre ranch at $510 an acre, although it had been appraised at $200 an acre.
In the early 1990s Chapman began building a luxury log cabin on a 240-acre inholding in the West Elk Wilderness near Paonia, which he had purchased for $960,000, only stopping after negotiating a land trade with Forest Service. After trading the inholding for 105 acres near Telluride, Chapman sold the Telluride property for more than $4 million.