Senate Panel's Eminent Domain Move Kills 'Super Slab': CBS-TV4 (Denver CO), 4/27/05

With 275 people from the eastern plains looking on, a [Colorado state] Senate panel Tuesday backed a bill that would effectively prevent the building of private toll roads such as the 210-mile long "Super Slab" project.

The crowd that had packed into the Old Supreme Court chamber applauded after the vote, hoping the measure would prevent the road's developers from forcing them to sell their land. Others who couldn't fit into the room listened to the meeting in a room upstairs.

The measure from Sen. Tom Wiens, R-Sedalia, would strip eminent domain power from developers of private toll roads, including the highway proposed for the plains between Pueblo and Fort Collins. Without that power, developers wouldn't be able to force people to sell their land for the project.

Ray Wells, who wants to build the Front Range Toll Road to the east of Interstate 25, has said Senate Bill 230 would effectively kill his project.

Because lawmakers are in a rush to get bills heard in both the Senate and the House before the session ends May 11, Sen. Stephanie Takis, D-Aurora, decided not to allow any public testimony. Instead she asked those in favor of the bill to stand and the sergeants at arms counted 275 people. Only one person a representative of the state transportation department stood when she asked who opposed the measure.

Front Range Toll Road Co. lobbyist Kathy Oatis declined comment. The company issued a written statement saying that it would only use eminent domain power as a last resort and supported adding regulations to protect property owners and the environment.

Republican Sen. Ron May, who represents El Paso County where much of the opposition to the road is based, tried to change the bill to still allow eminent domain but require private companies to follow the same rules as the state in paying fair cost for land. That angered toll road opponents but Takis ruled it out of order, saying it didn't fit under the bill's description.

Takis said the amendment had been offered by May on behalf of the transportation department.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, was the only senator to vote against the proposal. She said lawmakers should have heard from transportation officials about their problems with the measure rather than just making a decision based on emotions.

"I cannot support letting 275 people set highway policy for the state of Colorado," Spence said.

Wiens said the 19th century laws, which allowed private toll roads to be built, needs to be changed because it was never intended to allow highways carrying trucks and cars. He said the law makes it so easy to gain the power of eminent domain over people's property that he was able to fill out the registration paper work to build a toll road between Boulder to Pueblo during his lunch hour.

Irene Lobaido of Peyton said residents should never have been forced to defend their property against Wells.

"What right does he have over me just because he's a rich man?" she said.

Residents have come a long way since learning about Wells' plans after a bill he backed easily passed the House earlier this session. They mobilized quickly, holding large meetings and starting Web sites. About 500 of them showed up last month to watch the same Senate committee kill the pro toll road bill.

Road opponents have now hired a Denver lawyer to help them fight the proposal and they're working with lobbyists for environmental groups as well as one working for cable magnate John Malone, who owns land in the path of the proposed toll road in Elbert County.

Chuck Shaw of the Eastern Plains Citizen Coalition said members helped write Wiens' bill as well as another one introduced Wednesday by state Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder. He said they'll be following those bills and could put more pressure on Gov. Bill Owens to support their effort. One option is holding a tailgating party at the governor's mansion, he said.

CBS-TV4: http://news4colorado.com