August 24, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Prior Public Use Doctrine Precludes Condemnation that would Eliminate Public Use

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in CAW Equities, L.L.C. v. City of Greenwood Village  on Thursday, March 22, 2018.

Eminent DomainPrivate CondemnationPrior Public Use DoctrineColorado Constitution Article XVI, Section 7.

CAW Equities, L.L.C. (CAW) sought private condemnation of a public equestrian and pedestrian trail (public trail) that bisects two of its adjacent properties to construct a ditch from the Highline Canal to the southern end of its properties. The City of Greenwood Village (City) owned the public trail from a plat dedication and separate dedication for equestrian and pedestrian use. The City moved to dismiss under CRCP 12(b)(1).The district court denied the petition and awarded the City attorney fees and costs.

On appeal, CAW argued that the district court erred in holding that CAW lacked the authority to condemn the public trail. The Court of Appeals agreed with the district court, finding that the legislature, through the eminent domain statutes, may regulate Colo. Const. art. XVI, section 7 (Section 7) so long as it does not unnecessarily limit or curtail the constitutional right.

CAW also argued that Section 7 is self-executing and cannot be limited or curtailed by the eminent domain statutes. The Court concluded that while Section 7 may be self-executing, well-settled law recognizes the legislature’s ability to regulate private condemnation, and the eminent domain statutes properly regulate the exercise of this right under Section 7.

CAW alternatively argued that even if the eminent domain statutes apply, its proposed plan does not violate them. It claimed that Section 7 does not require it to show a ditch is necessary, and that it provides an absolute right to condemn. The Court did not decide whether CAW must prove the ditch is necessary to access its water rights to be able to condemn the ditch because the land CAW sought to condemn was already in public use as a public trail. The Court decided, as a matter of first impression, that the prior public use doctrine applies to private condemnation proceedings under Section 7. Though Section 7 grants general authority to condemn public property for a right-of-way to access water, it does not expressly grant the authority to extinguish an existing public use on such property; it merely grants express authority to a right-of-way if that right-of-way does not extinguish the public use. Further, the right to condemn an entire tract of public land in public use is not a necessary implication of the general right to privately condemn a right-of-way for a ditch. Here, there were other ways of transporting the water without interfering with the public trail. Where a private condemnor can obtain a right-of-way without extinguishing the existing public use, the condemnation power does not necessarily imply such a power. The district court was correct in finding that CAW failed to (1) allege express authority for its right to condemn all of the public trail; (2) prove that the right to condemn property already in public use was a necessary implication of its private condemnation right; and (3) prove that some public exigency existed to justify the necessity of condemning the public trail.

The Court also affirmed the City’s award of its attorney fees and costs.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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