A Pueblo jury late Thursday awarded rancher Gary Walker a $4.6 million judgment against Colorado Springs Utilities for the Southern Delivery System pipeline crossing Walker Ranches in Northern Pueblo County.
Walker contends the amount is far short of what the pipeline has cost him. During the trial, he contended that the conditions of the SDS easement have jeopardized a $25 million conservation easement he was negotiating with the Nature Conservation for $1,680 an acre on 15,000 acres.
Walker said the conditions of the utility easement through his property allow for access that negates the value of the conservation easement, and that soils from offsite that were used as fill are contaminated with seeds from invasive species. Rain storms already have caused erosion on the pipeline scar and the damage could be greater in the future.
He also said he is fearful that Colorado Springs will take action against him if normal ranch activities interfere with the SDS permanent easement that is 100 feet wide across 5.5 miles of Walker Ranches.
The jury awarded Walker $4.665 million in damages in addition to the $82,900 actual value of the easement. The actual value was part of Judge Jill Mattoon’s instructions to the jury.
“We stung Colorado Springs, but it will do little to protect the next little guy or rare environmental landscape that gets in their way,” Walker said in a written statement provided to The Pueblo Chieftain. “My attorneys were amazed at CSU’s response against one rancher. It was like using a tank to kill a fly.”
The rancher charged that Colorado Springs drove up litigation costs intentionally. In December, Walker won a Pueblo District Court decision on costs of about $500,000 to that point, but the state Supreme Court pushed the decision back until the trial concluded. In that case, Walker said Colorado Springs had needlessly delayed trial.
“Colorado Springs punished us a great deal both financially and emotionally but I am glad we did it and I would do it again even though we lost a lot more than we gained,” Walker said. “Our financial loss is minor when compared to the loss of another open space and protected wildlife habitat area.”
Walker plans to raise the issue of how he was treated by Colorado Springs to Pueblo County commissioners, who issued a 1041 permit for SDS in 2009.
“My hope is that Pueblo County stands their ground and protects everyone by holding the city of Colorado Springs and their utility company to the terms of the 1041 contract they signed in 2009,” Walker said.
Walker also indicated that he is nervous about whether he will actually be able to collect the $4.6 million, since he expects Colorado Springs to appeal.
Colorado Springs has not indicated if it will ap- peal the judgment.
“We are disappointed in the outcome and will be exploring our options to protect the interests of those residents who are helping to fund the SDS project and will be impacted by this outcome,” said Janet Rummel, SDS spokeswoman for Colorado Springs Utilities. “We do not believe the result was supported by the evidence presented.”
She contended that Colorado Springs has worked to address Walker’s concerns and to offer fair compensation for the easements, along with paying $720,000 to relocate cattle during construction.
“We will continue to work with Mr. Walker and all easement holders on the SDS alignment to complete successful restoration and revegetation, as well as to responsibly maintain the condition of our easements,” Rummel said.