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The Chaffee County Right to Farm and Ranch Board met for a rare public session on Tuesday January 22, to elect a chair and vice chair and determine next steps regarding board policies and processes. The board is halfway through the current two-year term, which expires January 31, 2021 and this was its first meeting. Formal business was limited to setting a 10 a.m. February 27 work session to review the county’s actual Right to Farm and Ranch statutes and perhaps suggest amendments to the document. But a few issues emerged during the group discussion related to their authority, and questions were raised by members of the public who attended the open meeting.

“I’m a rancher, a past [county] commissioner. I’ve worn many hats,” said Holman. “I believe the Right to Ranch Board has a good purpose. We initiated this to help resolve issues without farmers and ranchers having to spend a lot of money in court.” He noted issues related to irrigation ditches, working dogs and boundary line disputes often involve non-ranching neighbors who don’t understand that agricultural livelihoods are commercial operations.

Ditch maintenance is critically important to keep agricultural irrigation ditches functional. Photo courtesy of Central Colorado Conservancy.

Four members of the six member board were present, including Holman, Jim McConaghy, Kate Larkin, and Bernie Post. Frosty Roe and Norma Cady was absent. They elected Holman as chair and Larkin as vice chair of the board.

“There seems to be a desire from the ranching community to have a forum where issues can get resolved quickly; in a friendly manner without spending inordinate hours coming to a solution,” said Larkin. “ I asked for the meeting. I feel strongly we’ve been a board for a year and have not met. We need to review procedures and policies. I would hope that we could actively engage the community on what this board is and does, to encourage the community to utilize its services.”

Three board members (Holman, McConaghy and Post) have been on the board since its inception in 2008. Post noted that the need for the Right to Ranch Board will continue, although it had reached out in the past to Realtors to help spread understanding of agricultural realities and been rebuffed. “As the county gains population and we get more and more folks in the county, it’s important that we keep this,” said Post.

County Administrative Assistant Patty Baldwin pointed out that the county has a Right to Ranch brochure that is distributed to Realtors, but that many of them in the past sent it back saying they aren’t interested. The Envision  project has set up an accredited course for Realtors to teach them about agricultural and water rights, how the agricultural economy works and what people moving into rural areas should know to be a good neighbor.

The group discussed past involvement in mediation, noting there had not been much. They agreed that the public needs to be encouraged to use the board, rather than issues ending up in court. Post said he’d like the county commissioners to do more to encourage mediation. McConaghy agreed, noting that more public awareness of the Right To Ranch mission is needed, to keep farmers and ranchers out of costly court situations.

“I think the public needs to be aware that [the board] is here. People’s first reaction is to go to court,” said Holman. “My perspective is folks like me with irrigation ditches – people buy houses and they’re next to the ditch and they go put up fencing. They don’t understand livestock, or working dogs and all that.”

Larkin asked for clarity on the county’s Right to Farm and Ranch Rules, which she noted don’t seem to agree with the Colorado state statutes and appear more restrictive than Colorado Right to Farm laws. “They seem to be pretty restrictive here – more so than the state defines this.”

Assistant County Attorney Daniel Tom reminded the board that the state uses three criteria to determine agricultural status.

“Yes, there are three criteria here – one is ag tax status, one is a water right, the other one is by schedule F,” said McConaghy. “The state considered pleasure horses as a non-ag use.”

Tom replied that the current policies and procedures “were adopted in 2017 by a former board.”

McConaghy disagreed. “It was not adopted by this board…I don’t recall ever being asked about this … I remember the meeting. I was in the meeting, but I never remember developing this. We were dictated to about this, by the county attorney. We created the 2008 county statutes, but it’s not the same as this [document].”

Holman agreed saying “The Right to Ranch commissioners didn’t create this [current policies and procedures document].”

The discrepancy sets the stage for a major review of the current policies and procedures and how they connect to the county’s Article 3 Right to Ranch statutes. during the board’s February work session.

While the meeting was not a public hearing, there were questions from the public.

The Carrigan Ranch goat flock is guarded by six guardian dogs, that stay with the flock 24-hours a day to guard against coyote and mountain lion predators. Courtesy photo.

Aja Carrigan submitted a letter recapping a current conflict between their goat ranch and a neighbor; telling the board that they have agricultural status, and a ditch water right, meaning they qualify for use of the county Right to Ranch board. She noted that since Ark Valley Voice had reported on their situation related to their Livestock guardian dogs who guard their goat ranch, they have received two more dog barking tickets. This brings the total tickets to 19, in what has become a criminal case in district court.

Tom replied that mediation “might help future criminal prosecution, but it will not help what has already occurred.*”

Nelson Reininger asked if the county could clarify why the dog barking ordinance being enforced by the county appears weaker and contradictory to state Right to Ranch statutes. He asked, “Who decides whether or not to enforce which regulations?”

“I don’t know all the noise ordinances here, I don’t know what falls under state statute,” replied Tom.

“We’re being prosecuted under local ordinances, not state ordinances. We are being criminally prosecuted for following Right to Ranch guidelines,” said Carrigan.

For those interested in the county statutes, hard copies of both the Chaffee County Right to Ranch statutes and the Code of the West brochure are available in the Chaffee County Building Dept. at 104 Crestone Ave., Salida.

*Note: This statement is quoted as spoken, but does not constitute a legal opinion.