Though there's some question about whether it will actually do anything, Gov. Bill Ritter signed a measure Thursday that several Southeast Coloradans hope will prevent the U.S. Army from expanding a training site in their back yards.
Under an azure sky amid a picnic-like atmosphere on the east side of the state Capitol grounds, complete with food and a live band, a group of ranchers and residents from several Southeastern Colorado counties ventured to Denver to watch the governor sign HB1069.
The measure is designed to block the near tripling of the 238,000-acre Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site. Introduced by Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, and Sen. Ken Kester, R-Las Animas, the bill withdraws the state's consent to give up jurisdiction over any land that the U.S. Army might acquire through condemnation.
It is believed to be the first time any state in the history of the nation has ever tried to do that.
Regardless, Ritter and other lawmakers were a bit hesitant to tell local landowners that the measure will do them any good in preventing the training site's expansion by the 418,000 acres the Army says it wants.
"I don't want to raise expectations because I don't know at the end of the day if truly we can stop the Army or the United States government from using the power of eminent domain to seize that property," Ritter told about 50 people who attended the bill-signing ceremony. "If in fact they decide to do that, I'm not sure whether legally we can (stop it). So I sign this bill mindful that this may be helpful, and maybe it will be the deciding factor . . . but I want to say the reason I'm doing this is it has everything to do with that ranching community and the people who would be impacted."
The U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the power to condemn, purchase or otherwise acquire land for such things as courthouses, post offices or military installations, but only if the state in which that land is located agrees to release any jurisdiction over it. While the measure Ritter signed includes a clause that says, "the General Assembly recognizes that it is unable to prohibit the federal government from using the power of eminent domain," McKinley said he believes it just may be enough to do the trick.
"The government is to protect the life, liberty and property," McKinley said. "That's the only reason we have a government, and this (bill) is a prime example about how that works."
Still, not everyone in the Legislature believes the measure will do the state any good.
Several, particularly those from El Paso County where most of the state's military installations are located, said it sends the wrong message to the Army about whether the state welcomes it here.
"It is not a good policy statement in the sense that it sends a message to the Department of Defense that we, the state of Colorado, just would as soon the Army not do this," said Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs. "The practical problem is, the Army doesn't want to use eminent domain, that's not their preferred course. So, what is this bill about? The bill is to try to discourage the Army, and try to head the Army off. This doesn't prevent eminent domain under the federal condemnation act."
For many lawmakers, the point behind the measure is not to send a message that the state doesn't want the Army here, but that it doesn't want the Army to take anyone's land through condemnation.
Army officials themselves said they intend to get the land they need through easement agreements and outright purchases.
Their word, however, just isn't good enough, McKinley and Kester said.
"When you see the passion in these people and why they're here and why they've made the six or eight trips up here, you can understand this is one of the most important things that's probably happened in their lives," Kester said. "It's one of the most important bills I've ever carried, and I'm just proud to be representing the people of that part of Colorado."
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