March 24, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Special District Act Does Not Require Consent of Mineral Estate Owners to Expand Boundaries of District

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Bill Barrett Corp. v. Lembke on Thursday, September 6, 2018.

Preliminary InjunctionSpecial DistrictMineral EstatesPower to TaxSummary Judgment.

In 2009, the Sand Hills Metropolitan District (Sand Hills) included the 70 Ranch within its boundaries and began assessing ad valorem taxes on the oil and gas extracted from the mineral estate. Plaintiffs Bill Barrett Corporation and Bonanza Creek Energy, Inc., and intervenor Noble Energy, Inc. (lessees), challenged these taxes and obtained summary judgment in Weld County District Court. Both sides appealed. In that appeal, the division agreed with the district court that when Sand Hills included the 70 Ranch it was a material departure from its 2004 service plan, which required approval from the Weld County Board of County Commissioners. Because that approval had not been obtained, the division held that Sand Hills lacked taxing authority after 2009.

Following entry of the summary judgment and before the Sand Hills appeal was filed, Lembke and 70 Ranch, LLC (the LLC) (collectively, defendants) petitioned South Beebe Draw Metropolitan District (South Beebe) to include the 70 Ranch. Defendants owned the surface estate where all of lessees’ well heads are located. Lessees were not notified of this action. South Beebe resolved to include the 70 Ranch, and the Adams County District Court approved the inclusion. Lessees filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent South Beebe from taxing oil and gas that lessees produce from the mineral estate underlying the 70 Ranch. The trial court denied the motion and entered summary judgment that under C.R.S. § 32-1-401, the severed mineral estate underlying the 70 Ranch could not be included within South Beebe because all the owners and lessees of that estate did not petition for and consent to inclusion. Lessees obtained a temporary restraining order in the Weld County District Court that prohibited the Weld County Treasurer, who had collected the disputed taxes, from disbursing the monies to South Beebe. Venue was transferred to Adams County and, following an evidentiary hearing on lessees’ motion for a preliminary injunction, the court found lessees had not shown a reasonable probability of success on the merits and denied the motion. Later, the court entered a final judgment against lessees on their C.R.S. § 32-1-401 claim. Lessees appealed and asked that the status quo be preserved by enjoining the treasurer from disbursing taxes collected to South Beebe. A motions division granted the request.

On appeal, lessees argued that without their consent and that of the other mineral estate owners, the 70 Ranch, or at least the underlying mineral estate, could not have been included within South Beebe. South Beebe responded that because the mineral and surface estates were severed, only the surface owners needed to petition for and consent to inclusion, and all of them did. The court of appeals first held that mineral estate owners are “fee owners,” but lessees are not. Next, because the parties agreed and the record supports that not all of the mineral estate owners consented to the 70 Ranch’s inclusion, the court considered whether South Beebe’s services can benefit the mineral estate. Because lessees did not argue that the mineral estate owners would benefit from the inclusion, the court concluded that lack of consent by all mineral estate owners did not preclude South Beebe from taxing lessees. Consequently, the court affirmed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment as to lessee’s C.R.S. § 32-1-401(1)(a) claim.

Lessees also challenged the trial court’s ruling that lessees had not shown a reasonable probability of successfully establishing that South Beebe had violated C.R.S. § 32-1-207(2)(a) by failing to obtain Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) approval for a material change in its service plan, because it had obtained approval from the planning commission. However, the court found that the actions of the planning commission and other officials did not satisfy the requirement that South Beebe had to obtain BOCC approval for a material modification of its service plan. Therefore, lessees have a reasonable probability of success in establishing that South Beebe did not obtain the requisite BOCC approval. Further, the trial court dissolved the temporary restraining order and denied a preliminary injunction on this ground alone, without considering the other factors set forth in Rathke v. MacFarlane, 648 P.2d 648, 651 (Colo. 1982).

Lessees also argued that it was error to conclude that South Beebe’s inclusion of the 70 Ranch was not a material modification. Boundary changes alone are presumptively not material modifications, and the court found that inclusion of the 70 Ranch was just a boundary change. Thus, the trial court acted within its discretion in ruling that lessees had not shown a reasonable probability of success in challenging inclusion of the 70 Ranch as an unapproved material modification.

Finally, lessees argued that under C.R.S. § 32-1-107(2), South Beebe could not levy and collect taxes to support services if those services are already being provided by another special district (in this case, Sand Hills). The court agreed with the trial court that the statute prohibits overlapping services, not merely overlapping territory. Here, no party asked the court to resolve the factual question of overlapping services, thus the question of whether the services were overlapping was not properly before the court.

The summary judgment on lessees’ C.R.S. § 32-1-401(1)(a) claim was affirmed. The order denying lessees’ motion for a preliminary injunction was vacated. The case was remanded for the trial court to make findings on the remaining Rathke factors and reconsider whether to enter a preliminary injunction. The temporary injunction will remain in effect until the trial court enters its renewed ruling on the motion for preliminary injunction.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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