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Politics and Government

Gunnison County second-home owners, sour from being temporarily banned during coronavirus, gear up for political fight

Outside money in local elections worries Commissioner Jonathan Houck. “This is a litmus test for all resort communities,” he said.

Trudy Vader, a prospective candidate for Gunnison County Commissioner collects signatures while speaking with voters and supporters outside the Gunnison Post Office in downtown Gunnison. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

One of the most timeworn laments of second-home owners in resort towns is their lack of a voice on political and taxation issues. Nonresidents can’t vote in their second-home communities, but the sales and property taxes they pay and the charitable contributions they make float a lot of high-country economies.

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After Gunnison County banned part-time residents from their properties in the initial weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, a group of second-home owners banded together to help sway this fall’s county commissioner election. 

“We just want to be the voice that unifies and brings a little bit of fairness in governance within this county,” said Jim Moran, a Texas resident who is organizing the Gunnison Valley Second Homeowners group. “One of the primary lessons we learned this spring was that you can’t really have an effective voice on issues unless you have an organization. A goal of this organization is to put these two constituencies together — businesses and second-home owners — and work together toward more balance in our governance.”

The group plans to support two candidates — a Republican business owner and an unaffiliated rancher — to upset the Democratic majority on the Gunnison County Board of County Commissioners that has lasted 15 years. 

Part-time residents swaying local elections could have ramifications beyond the Gunnison River Valley, said Jonathan Houck, one of two Democrats on the county commission up for election this year.

“This is more than an issue for Gunnison County. This is an issue for Colorado and really all the Western U.S. If this group is successful in using influence and money to buy an election and support people who have priorities above the priorities of local residents, what’s going to prevent them from spreading to Summit County and Eagle County and Teton County and Pitkin and Routt and San Miguel?” asked Houck. “This is a litmus test for all resort communities.”

MORE: Threats, vandalism, job loss: Colorado’s public health officials are under attack as they respond to coronavirus

April 5 order threatens fines, jail

When the pandemic began its march across Colorado, second-home owners seemed aligned with residents in Gunnison County, supporting public health measures designed to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

But an April 5 health order broke that alignment and riled some of the 4,400 second-home owners in the county that has a full-time population around 17,000. That health order demanded all part-time residents leave immediately and promised a $5,000 fine and up to 18 months in jail for anyone who stayed. 

A sign asking people to stay home beside highway 135 in Gunnison County on May 7, 2020. Travel within Gunnison has been restricted to residents only during the COVID-19 pandemic. in March, April and early May, Gunnison County reported 108 positive COVID-19 cases and 5 deaths, making it one of the most highly infected areas per capita in Colorado. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The public health department did allow more than 120 part-time residents who were already in the county when the order came down to remain in their homes after a review process. Part-time residents who asked the health department for permission to enter the county were largely denied. 

On April 9, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote a letter to Reynolds and the county’s health department, saying the “patent discrimination” against nonresident homeowners “runs afoul of the United States Constitution.” 

“There is no indication that nonresident homeowners, as a whole, are more susceptible to COVID-19 based on age or other health criteria, or that those nonresidents will pose any greater strain on local resources than residents,” reads the letter, which asked Reynolds to modify her order “to protect the rights of nonresident homeowners.”

(The Associated Press later reported that Paxton’s letter helped a campaign donor and former classmate from Texas who was riding out the pandemic in his Crested Butte vacation home.)

Gunnison County’s public health order was a marked departure from other counties, where part-time residents were encouraged to leave or at least quarantine for two weeks if they remained or visited their homes. Pitkin County, home to the vacation-home-rich Aspen, and Eagle County, home to Vail, simply urged nonresidents to quarantine before venturing into the community. Eagle County in June launched a campaign even urging second-home owners to visit and help drive the economic recovery from the shutdown.

“Gunnison County’s message to second-home owners,” Moran said, “was ‘you are a burden on the resources that your tax dollars support.’”

Arvada residents James and Joyce Cillessen sued the county commissioners and the county’s public health director Joni Reynolds in late April, arguing the ban on part-time residents violated the U.S. Constitution. 

The Cillessens, who own a home on 74 acres in Gunnison, argued in their lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver that the county’s preventing them from accessing their property “constitutes a regulatory taking” and sought damages  

The couple living on their property or driving in their car to their home “creates no material risk of transmission of COVID-19,” reads their claim. 

They filed the lawsuit after receiving an email from the county on April 18 telling them that Reynolds had denied their request for a waiver exempting them from the ban and offering no means of appeal. 

“At this time, it is not safe for you to return to Gunnison County at the higher altitude with the ongoing community spread of COVID19,” reads the email from Gunnison County’s emergency management department.

On May 18, a federal judge ordered the two parties to begin planning and scheduling initial meetings for the case. The Cillessens dropped their case on June 5. 

Two candidates step forward

The Gunnison Valley Second Homeowners PAC is organized as an independent expenditure committee, Moran said, which will not coordinate, strategize or donate to candidates. But he said his group will spend independently of candidate campaigns — essentially building their own campaigns — in support or opposition of candidates. Moran filed his GV2H PAC’s articles of incorporation with the Colorado Secretary of State on May 19 as a nonprofit corporation that “shall be operated primarily to influence or attempt to influence the selection, nomination, election, or appointment of candidates to federal, state or local public office.” 

Crested Butte resident Jim Moran holds a flag standing outside this Mount Crested Butte home. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Moran said he has commitments of support for the PAC and is securing a bank account before he registers the group with the Colorado Secretary of State as an independent expenditure committee. State law says he must register the committee within two days of collecting or spending $1,000 and file regular reports on all donations and contributions.

The group plans to support Dave Taylor, the owner of the Gunnison KOA campground. Taylor, a Republican, entered the race late, deciding in May to run for a county commissioner seat. He was too late to make the Republican primary ballot, but more than 900 people wrote in his name, exceeding the 143 write-in votes needed to get him on the November ballot. 

Taylor will likely face Liz Smith, the co-chair of the Gunnison County Democratic Party, who earlier this month was appointed to the seat vacated by John Messner. Messner, a Democrat, resigned when he was hired by Gov. Jared Polis to serve on the new Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. 

MORE: Here’s who Gov. Polis just named to sit on the new, full-time panel regulating Colorado oil and gas

Moran said the second-home owner PAC also will support Trudy Vader, whose family began ranching in Gunnison County in 1881. Vader also entered the race late and is collecting signatures to get on the November ballot to face Houck, the commission chairman. 

“This wasn’t anywhere in my sights about a month or so ago,” said Vader, who is registered as an unaffiliated voter and says she votes both Democrat and Republican. 

She is personally collecting signatures she needs to get on the November ballot. 

“The word I hear most when I’m talking with people is ‘overreach,’” Vader said. “I’m finding that Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters are all using that word. I think the county commissioners are using a sledgehammer when a screwdriver is probably more appropriate.”

Vader said she checked out health orders in other resort communities, which encouraged or recommended that part-time residents return to their permanent homes.

“And here’s Gunnison County saying ‘get out now or we will fine you $5,000 and put you in jail for 18 months,’” she said, pointing to more recent health orders that also warn business owners and event organizers “of potential civil and criminal enforcement mechanisms and penalties,” for violations of the new rules. “All that needs to be done is say ‘Hey, we know this is confusing. Let us help you comply with the order.’ They are hammering and it is so disrespectful.”

Vader says she agrees with the health orders requiring masks and limiting gatherings. 

Trudy Vader, a prospective, unaffiliated candidate for Gunnison County commissioner is collecting signatures herself to make the November ballot. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I have an issue with how they are doing it,” she said. “I really feel we have silent, neglectful leadership from the county commissioners. I see a dream team of Democrat, Republican and unaffiliated on the board giving us needed balance and at least some debate on the values and positions of our community before rubber stamping these orders.”

Vader, who grew up in Gunnison County and moved back home in 2015 after working for less than a year as superintendent of the Hayden School District, fears she may be tied into the Republican effort or to the Gunnison Valley Second Homeowners group. 

“I have compassion and respect for everyone in this valley,” she said. “This has created so much division in our community. We need some healing in this valley, and I don’t see it coming from the county board right now. I’m embarrassed. I keep apologizing for behavior I haven’t had anything to do with, but I’m sorry this is the type of leadership we have right now. It’s time to show some respect.”

Declining cases, booming tourism

Houck, the commissioner who could face Vader if she secures the needed signatures, noted how Colorado’s state laws give wide powers to local public health officials during an emergency. 

“The state takes politics out of public health decisions,” Houck said. “The struggle here that perhaps Trudy is having and Jim Moran his clearly having is that they don’t like the decisions being made.”

The board of commissioners fully supports health director Joni Reynolds, Houck said. As cases spiked in the county in late March, Reynolds came to the board with what she said were drastic measures. They were needed, Houck said, to slow the growth of surging cases and give the county time to build up capacity in its 25-bed hospital and collect protective equipment for health care workers. 

“And look at where we are today,” he said, pointing to increased testing and a declining trend of positive test results. “We were a top-three county in the country for infection rates when this started.”

Business is booming in Gunnison County. Houck said many business owners are reporting record revenues and their busiest days, weeks and months ever. Tourist numbers are close to those of last summer.

Patrons enjoy lunch at The Dive Pub in downtown Gunnison. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We have been effective,” Houck said. “We are protecting the public health and we are helping the economy recover.” 

Houck said while a few second-home owners who reached out to him were angry over the ban, more supported the measure, especially as they gather for the summer and see measures helping to contain the spread of COVID-19. 

Moran said about nine in 10 of the second-home owners he’s contacted are supporting the group’s effort. The GV2H & Friends Facebook forum — which Moran created April 4 and is private — has more than 650 members. Moran said the group’s supporters do not feel unappreciated by locals. He sees the relationship between part-time residents as residents as “a vital bond” that keeps the local economy vibrant. 

“In order for us to come here as second-home owners and enjoy this valley — and really all of the great communities in Colorado — we need businesses to be successful,” he said. “We rely on them and they rely on us. It’s not one group doing more for the other. A core component of this PAC is that this reliance is a vital bond. It’s what stitches a community together, but when government decides it can benefit from separating constituencies, they put a strain on that reliance and put a strain on the bonds that great communities are built upon.”

Moran bristles at the notion that his group wants to change Gunnison County. 

“We don’t want to change it,” he said. “We want to contribute to its ability to thrive.” 

Contention grows after COVID ban

John Norton, the executive director of the county’s Tourism and Prosperity Partnership, got an earful from second-home owners following the health order banning them from their properties. He penned an open letter to part-time residents in mid-April, massaging the county’s message a bit. “We are at war with this virus,” he wrote, describing the sacrifices of Americans during WWII. “Now we are all being asked — or directed, if you prefer — to change our behaviors to save the lives of our fellow Americans.”

Norton, in an interview, praised the county’s public health department for balancing the reopening of local businesses with efforts to keep residents and visitors safe. His group’s current forecasts for daily visitors to Crested Butte are not that much different than its forecast for last July, with more than 4,000 daily visitors on weekends. But he admits the department’s early communication with second-home owners was not good. 

“There was a good reason for this order. Gunnison Valley Hospital has no ICU capabilities. But the order was handled in a ham-handed way that many nonresident homeowners took offense to,” he said. “Nonresident homeowners are vital to making our valley work, just as they are vital in every ski valley in the state. Many are beloved neighbors, even if they spend less than half a year annually in the valley. Most supported the public health order even as they winced at the tone of the order itself.”

Jane Chaney spent most of the fall trying to recruit Republican candidates to run for county commissioner seats in 2020. The 17-year Gunnison County resident and chair of the local Republican party could not find any takers. Then came the county’s response to the coronavirus. 

“We have had a majority Democratic board here for more than 15 years and I think people were pretty much OK with the way things were going. But things became much more contentious with the onset of COVID,” she said. 

The thought processes behind issuing regulations stricter than state orders were not clearly shared with residents of the valley, Chaney said. She wonders why business owners who were stocking up for spring break crowds were not given advance notice that a shutdown was under consideration. Chaney said the threat of fines and jail for second-home residents “went too far.” 

“As decisions were being made, we realized our elected officials were not participating in a lot of these decisions,” Chaney said. “The second-home owner, obviously not having the ability to vote, believed that the only way they could remain aware of the goings on this county would be to have some kind of representation.”

Chaney says second-home owners drive the county’s economy. Their property taxes easily make up more than half of the county’s total collections.

“Their contributions to our nonprofits and our arts and our music and the overall prosperity here is so important,” she said. “We are lucky that we have these wonderful retail shops and restaurants they support. Locals alone cannot sustain these businesses.” 

“It all comes down to the way they communicated these mandates,” Chaney said. “Most of the steps they have taken have been good. Some were not. And no one sat down and really looked at the orders and examined what they were designed to do and what’s the anticipated outcome.”

Testing began in Gunnison last Friday, March 13 and is conducted every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10am to 12pm by the Gunnison County Health and Human Services Department outside of their building. Testing is held in Crested Butte at the Crested Butte Community School on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Gunnison County is one of the hardest hit areas in the state in proportion to the population. Two people have been admitted to the Gunnison Valley Hospital, 39 people have tests pending and 239 residents are self-reporting symptoms and are self isolated.
Cars line up during drive-up testing for COVID-19 in Gunnison on March 20, 2020. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“They want to change the deal they bought into”

Steve Loden, a Houston attorney with two homes in Gunnison County, also was miffed by the county’s response to the pandemic in late March and early April. He got the postcard sent by Moran to all the county’s second-home owners. He joined the Facebook forum, where, he said, a chorus of second-home owners called for lawsuits as they talked about the county violating property rights. 

Loden started asking questions. What are the real damages, he asked, noting that few people visit the county in April and May, when the ski resort is closed and snow limits outdoor recreation in the hills.  

“None of these second-home owners were coming to Crested Butte at that time. So I asked about what they really lost. I got banned from the group,” Loden said. “And not just me, but anyone who voiced support for the questions I was asking was booted and banned.”

So Loden created his own Facebook forum for second-home owners

“I think there is a much larger collection of second-home owners who are the silent majority who don’t want to upend local politics and really do care about the locals here and want to protect the community we all chose to buy into,” Loden said. 

Every part-timer who bought into Crested Butte and the valley knew the rules when they bought their property, Loden said. If they want to vote, they have to live there full-time. Their tax dollars will be used without their voice. It’s the same across the country.

Except in a handful of special districts — mostly water and sewer — and some newer communities like Telluride’s Mountain Village, where nonresidents can vote if they own property, as affirmed in a 1997 decision by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Colorado Supreme Court in 1981 denied a plea by vacation-home owners in Larimer County who were asking for a right to vote in their water district with this resonating ruling:

“The fact that a nonresident owns land in this state does not create a fundamental right to political participation in decisions which affect that land,” reads the Colorado Supreme Court’s 1981 decision. “While nonresident landowners may be enfranchised … there is nothing in our constitution that requires they be given voting rights in a political subdivision where they do not live.”

That is part of the deal for vacation-home buyers, Loden said. 

“Folks like Jim Moran and others are pissed off because they want to change the deal they bought into,” Loden said. “To me it’s a thumb in the eye of all the locals for them to sit in their platinum houses in the suburbs of Dallas or Plano and raise millions to renegotiate the terms of their purchase in Gunnison County.”

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