Volume 2, Number 19 - August 8, 2002
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Property Rights Protected: No Condemnation Through Blatt's
The Sublette County Commission held a public hearing Tuesday afternoon and heard speaker after speaker urge the commission to uphold private property rights by denying a request to force public access through John Blatt's private property.
The commissioners listened to public comment for just over an hour before casting their votes. Commission Chairman Bill Cramer said: "There will be no county road extension or condemnation" of Blatt's private property in order to force him to continue to provide public access to the Willow Creek Guard Station in the Bridger-Teton National Forest via the New Fork/Willow Creek Road.
The crowd at the hearing grew to about 50 people, with the overwhelming majority there to support Blatt and defend the private-property issue at stake. Many were ranchers in from hayfields and represented large parcels of private land throughout the county.
Brad Clingman of Albany County was appointed by the Sublette County Commission earlier this summer to act as a disinterested road viewer. Clingman reminded the commission Tuesday that it was his recommendation not to use condemnation proceedings against Blatt.
After Clingman, the next two speakers expressed polar opposite views: affected property owner John Blatt and William Belveal, who led the petition drive to keep the road open when Blatt announced his intention to close it. At the beginning of the hearing, Belveal moved forward and sat beside Blatt in one of the two pews in the front of the room.
Blatt asked the commission "to respect my private property rights and to ask the public to gain access to those areas on existing public roads. To me, this is a simple issue involving private property rights."
Belveal asked the commission to disregard the viewer's recommendation and pursue extending the road for the benefit of the public.
Pinedale's David Smith described himself as a third-generation member of the community and said he was " embarrassed and absolutely sick" that such an action was being contemplated. The taking of private property in this matter doesn't occur in a democratic government, Smith said, but in a socialist system of government.
Ed Wardell of the Big Piney area said he didn't want to see the county enter the conflict on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service. Wardell pointed out if the Forest Service were left to resolve the problem on its own, "they may be better neighbors next time."
David Kanski of Daniel said, "I think that this whole thing really stinks," and reminded the audience of the hundreds of miles of road closures undertaken in recent years by the Forest Service.
John Andrikopoulos, Jonita Sommers, John Walter, Jim Noble and Dan Budd all spoke against condemnation proceedings.
Gina Pape Feltner was in the minority when she spoke, stating: "I hate to see that road closed. I see nothing wrong with the way it is now."
Rick Kranz said he would like to see the petition dropped and added that he hoped Blatt would see fit to keeping the road open.
Walt Bousman of Boulder said he felt it was "cowardly of the Forest Service to create this stir amongst the public" to get the commission "to fight this battle for them."
Jim Bousman, also of Boulder, noted that forcing public access through a parcel of land affects the value of the entire ranch. He said such an action would significantly devalue the ranch to the tune of millions of dollars.
Doug Vickrey said he neighbors Blatt and feels if the county were to force the access, it would snowball throughout the county. Vickrey added that he has found Blatt to be a good neighbor.
When the commission closed the public comment process, Johnston gave his view. He said: "I have the feeling there's a lot of you folks (speaking against condemning Blatt's land) ... who don't use the Willow Creek country or the Little Flat Top country. I have, for the last 50 years."
Should Blatt be allowed to shut off the access, Johnston said, "My grandkids, my great-grandkids, are not going to be able to see that."
Johnston said he could understand the concern for property rights. He said, "I could argue this thing both ways," but questioned how the access issue will be resolved.
"What is the answer?" Johnston questioned. "If we leave it up to the Forest Service ... it's not going to happen in my lifetime."
Commissioner Betty Fear said she had no comments to make, so it was Cramer's turn. He said, "I consider this to be a private-property matter" and said the commission, in his view, has "a duty to preserve and protect private property rights."
Cramer said he had heard nothing at the hearing to change his view. Fear made the motion to accept the road viewer's report and go with his recommendation not to condemn access through Blatt's land or to extend the existing county road through the private property. Cramer seconded the motion. Only Johnston voted against the ultimately successful motion.
After the hearing concluded, the commission asked Clingman to submit his expenses to the county, which will be paid from the $1,000 bond posted by the petitioners. Cramer said once the expenses are paid, the balance of the bond will be given to Belveal for distribution.
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