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Eminent domain action considered

SILVERTON, Colo. — The issue of when governments should be able to use the power of eminent domain continues to be debated in San Juan County in a case directly tied to operations of the double-black-diamond Silverton Mountain Ski Area.

Jim Jackson of Aspen owns land located among the federal lands used by skiers and snowboarders at Silverton Mountain. Jackson had staged speed-skiing championship there in the 1980s and had long talked about creating a ski area.

But in 1999, Aaron Brill arrived, buying private land and eventually installing a ski lift. With the ski area’s famous steeps comes a huge threat of avalanches. Jackson complains that not only are Silverton Mountain’s skiers trespassing on his property, but that the avalanches that Silverton Mountain sets off to reduce the risk trespass his property. He has filed a lawsuit seeking an end.

The county government has stepped in to condemn Jackson’s land, using money that Brill has agreed to pay. Brill would not get the land, but it would instead be held by the county or exchanged with the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the property Brill uses for skiing.

The county commissioners contend they have an interest in public safety, hence their interest in minimizing the threat of avalanches on the county road. As such, they reason, Brill’s needs are also their needs.

"We’re not pursuing this on an economic-development basis," San Juan County administrator Willy Tookey told the Durango Herald. "I just don’t understand the argument that just because somebody’s paying to ski, you shouldn’t make the road safe for them," he said.

Brill also argues that others benefit from avalanche control, as there is a mine, several homes and a power line that would also be served by improved avalanche control. However, until Brill’s work began, there was no avalanche control along the road.

Still, particularly in the wake of decisions around the country involving what many believe to be arrogant use of eminent domain for unjustified reasons, the case has drawn increased scrutiny.

Thomas Johnson, a lawyer for Jackson, argues that the ski area will still be the big winner. "The most egregious instances of trespass have occurred for the purpose of recreational skiing not for avalanche control," he told a judge. He filed a lawsuit against Brill on behalf of Jackson last December.

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