A [Colorado] Senate panel approved a measure Monday that won't prevent the U.S. Army from expanding the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site, but might make condemnation of land there a little less desirable.
At least, that's the hope that Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, and Sen. Ken Kester, R-Las Animas, had in introducing HB1069, which strips state consent to the U.S. government to use eminent domain to expand the Army training site by another 418,000 acres.
While the two lawmakers know the state can't really stop the federal government from using national security as a reason to condemn whatever land it needs, they wanted to send a clear message that the state doesn't approve of it.
"There no one in this room that is anti-military," Kester told the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which approved the measure on a 4-1 vote. "But we just don't think this is the right way for them to expand their maneuvering site."
Dozens of people from Southeastern Colorado testified for the bill, many of whom said they just don't trust the Army to stick to its word that it will not condemn any land to expand the site.
They said they remember the Army making similar promises in the early 1980s when the 238,000-acre training site was created.
About 130 people packed the committee room, ranging from county commissioners from the area to ranchers to area high school students.
Las Animas County Commissioner Jim Montoya said the federal government promised to make payments in lieu of taxes for the land they took off the tax rolls, but those payments have steadily decreased over time. He said the Army has made other promises it still hasn't kept.
"But the biggest concern that I have is that several ranchers that were impacted by eminent domain in the first round chose to stay in Las Animas County, and purchased land a few miles away," Montoya said. "Now these ranchers and families are going to be possibly taken to eminent domain for a second time. It's a tragedy that families could be taken not only once, but twice through eminent domain and not be given a fair price for their land."
Opponents to the measure, all of whom came from Colorado Springs and El Paso County, said the measure could jeopardize the state's relationship with the U.S. Army, perhaps to the point that it might consider pulling out of Colorado altogether.
Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Wes Clark, who now sits on the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce's Military Affairs Committee, said a measure also would hurt economic development in the state.
He said expansion of the maneuver site is needed to provide adequate training space for the 10,000 additional troops that will be stationed at Fort Carson over the next few years.
"The Army must train the way it is going to fight. You can't train in close quarters and then go into operations over long distances, the results would be chaotic," Clark said. "I understand the concerns of the people who would be impacted by the Army's use of the maneuver site. In my own lifetime I was impacted by the federal government's acquisition of land.
"But I look at it now as an example of sacrifice for the greater common cause for the common good," he added. "And I believe in my heart that the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site also represents sacrifice for the greater common cause."
Sen. Ron May, R-Colorado Springs, cast the lone dissenting vote, but his El Paso County colleague, Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, supported it, saying he was torn between what his community wanted and his strong opposition to condemnation rights.
The measure, which cleared the House late last month, heads to the full Senate for more debate.
Four students from La Junta and Kim high schools also testified for the measure, saying anything that causes families to leave the region could devastate their school districts.
"Eminent domain may be legal, however it does not make it morally right," said La Junta High School student Jordan Kurtz. "Although I do believe the United States is the best country in the world, I also believe that our country does have flaws. One of them being eminent domain. If the Pinon Canyon expansion does go through, it will not only be taking away our land and our jobs, it also will be taking away our home, our future, our lifestyle and our dream."
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