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San Juan Hut Systems, Inc. v. Board of County Commissioners.

2023 COA 10. No. 21CA1525. Counties—Regulation of Vehicles and Traffic—Right to Restrict Highway Use—Snow-Packed Conditions—Standing—Mootness—Statutory Authority.

February 2, 2023

The Board of County Commissioners of Ouray County (County) and a group of property owners (landowners) disputed vehicular access to approximately 3.5 miles of Ouray County Road 5 (CR 5). Landowners own real property that is accessed from CR 5. Landowners previously entered into winter maintenance agreements (WMAs) with the County concerning CR 5 access, but some years ago the County decided not to enter into a new WMA, and it closed CR 5 to vehicular traffic by closing a cattleguard gate that crosses the road. The County later decided it would adopt a WMA, but landowners disagreed with its restrictions and conditions, and they filed a CRCP 106(a)(4) action to challenge the County’s decision. The County and landowners eventually settled their dispute and entered into a new agreement, which (1) granted landowners a nonexclusive right to plow and access their properties along CR 5 by installing an additional gate; and (2) mandated construction of a separate trail that substantially parallels CR 5 to provide non-vehicular, over-the-snow access to the upper portion of CR 5. San Juan Hut Systems, Inc. (SJHS) operates two rental huts that are most easily accessed from CR 5. SJHS was permitted to intervene in landowners’ action, and it sought declaratory and injunctive relief to bar the County from entering into any WMAs that would permit only the landowners to have vehicular access along upper CR 5. SJHS and landowners filed summary judgment motions. The district court found that there were no material facts in dispute and concluded that the County had not (1) violated any protected property right possessed by landowners; (2) violated CRS § 43-2-201.1; or (3) exceeded the scope of its discretion under its statutorily granted authority. The court denied both motions and later dismissed SJHS’s claims.

As an initial matter on appeal, the County and landowners argued that because their settlement agreement altered how non-vehicular, over-the-snow traffic reaches the upper portion of CR 5,  remedying any alleged injuries to SJHS, SJHS lacks standing. However, SJHS alleged, among other things, that landowners and the County had a WMA allowing a select group of landowners to plow and access by vehicle the portion of CR 5 behind the gate, while the public was not allowed the same access. Assuming the truth of the allegations, the WMA made traversing CR 5 more difficult for SJHS’s guests. This constituted an injury in fact because a potentially difficult or dangerous trek from the parking area to SJHS’s huts endangered its guests, possibly damaged its reputation, and thus hurt its business. Accordingly, SJHS has standing.

The County and landowners also contended that after this appeal was filed, the General Assembly amended CRS § 42-4-106(3)(d), which moots the case. The relief that SJHS requested from the district court was a declaratory judgment that the County had exceeded its statutory authority and an injunction to prevent actions taken in excess of that authority. After this litigation began, the General Assembly amended § 42-4-106 by adding new subsection (3)(d), which expressly authorizes the County to restrict vehicular traffic when snow-packed conditions are likely to exist and to enter into WMA agreements. Based on this new express statutory authority and the County’s existing authority to regulate traffic and roads, an appellate decision in SJHS’s favor regarding the previous statute would have no practical effect on the controversy as it exists now. Accordingly, whether the County exceeded its authority is moot.

SJHS argued that the district court erred by denying its summary judgment motion because it wrongly concluded that the County had authority to allow only landowners access to CR 5 by vehicle during winter. However, SJHS did not challenge the County’s authority to convey the easement as part of a WMA or the County’s power to restrict vehicular access to the road. Therefore, reversing the district court’s order would not rescind the landowners’ easement or grant new easements to SJHS or any other party. Further, reversal would not preclude the County from closing its gate and restricting vehicular travel under its new authority. Accordingly, reversal would have no practical legal effect on this controversy, and the district court did not err.

SJHS also contended that the district court erred by concluding that the County did not violate CRS § 43-2-201.1. SJHS maintained that the County violated § 43-2-201.1 by installing or allowing a gate that closes CR 5 to vehicular traffic. However, as stated above, the County has authority to designate all or part of CR 5 for over-snow use only, and this authority allows it to restrict vehicular traffic’s access to designated portions. Accordingly, when the County exercises this authority and directs travelers to use an over-the-snow trail on the side of a roadway, it does not close the public’s access to public lands at the end of that roadway. Therefore, the district court did not err in denying SJHS’s motion for summary judgment concerning this alleged statutory violation.

The appeal was dismissed in part and the district court’s order was affirmed.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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