Our View: Defend public access

There's a half-mile stretch of dirt road near Greystone that Moffat County commissioners are bent on keeping open to the public.

They've hired a lawyer from Almont, Ricky Santarelli, who has filed legal documents staking out the county's position. Part of the argument is that the road is public under the provisions of Revised Statute 2477, a federal law that the county interprets as providing public access on all historically used routes across public land.

That makes for an interesting twist. Past commissioners passed an RS 2477 policy in 2003 that stipulated they would not use the law to assert road claims across private land. We'll have to see what kind of position new commissioners Saed Tayyara and Tom Gray take on the issue and whether they direct Santarelli to drop that part of the legal complaint he filed.

Commissioners seemed surprised by the legal strategy, which Santarelli filed in November. We find that a little surprising. Commissioners have a full-time county attorney who should be apprising them of the implications of all legal proceedings. But Commissioner Darryl Steele said the hired gun, Santarelli, purposely kept commissioners in the dark because he wanted to preserve some client confidentiality for the new commissioners who were coming on board.

The RS 2477 issue notwithstanding, the commissioners face the prospect of spending a significant sum of money on nothing more than a principled stand. The road in question provides access to an out-of-state landowner's property. It runs through land owned by James and Katherine Bassett,who maintain the road is their private property. They put up a gate, blocking access to the road, which prompted their neighbor to complain to commissioners.

One could argue that the county has no business litigating a dispute between two private landowners. But Steele has framed this as a precedent-setting deal. If the county allows the Bassetts to simply throw up a fence and proclaim the road theirs, what's to prevent the next guy from doing it? That's a valid question. And we think the Bassetts erred by not going through established channels and simply requesting the county to vacate the road.

Of course, the Bassetts may have thought this was an unnecessary move because they think the land is theirs to begin with. But by not requesting the county to vacate the road, they have backed the county into a corner. The affected landowner lost access to his property without benefit of a protest. If he had been allowed to make an argument, commissioners could have weighed the factors -- including whether the landowner has alternate and reasonable access to the property -- and decided whether keeping the road open is in the best interest of the public.

Instead, the commissioners are forced to draw a line in the sand. Absent a fight from the county, the Bassetts have invited all private landowners in the county to decide for themselves whether they want a public road running through their property.

The last time the county fought something on principle, taxpayers paid the price. The sheriff's decision to fight a traffic ticket ended up costing the county several thousand dollars in legal fees. We thought that reflected bad judgment. But that's the choice the sheriff made.

Commissioners don't seem to have much of a choice here.

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