In June 2009, Randy and Sheryl Pope asked the Larimer County Board of Commissioners to approve their plans to “preserve and share their property” at 3924 Bingham Hill Road by establishing a community hall and seasonal camp on 10-plus acres of land in the Bellvue/LaPorte area north and west of Fort Collins. From that day to this, their request has been in contention, upsetting neighbors and causing ongoing financial problems for the Popes.
In August, the Popes filed a 23-page formal complaint with the state of Colorado Independent Ethics Commission alleging unfair treatment by all three Larimer County Commissioners. The complaint claims the commissioners’ moral and ethical contact related to the addition of amenities to the Pope property violates the state constitution.
The heart of the issue revolves around the objections by several neighbors to the Popes’ plans to operate a venue for weddings and other social events inside an events center and, occasionally, outdoors. They also planned to operate a seasonal basketball camp for underprivileged youth.
Both these uses were allowed in the FA-farming zoning district where the property is located and in 2009 it was apparently not necessary to obtain any special approval from Larimer County. In 2010, in accordance with a new amendment to the land use code, the Pope’s original application became the first to undergo a “special review” process during which their request was approved. However, in December 2010, seven months after approval, permission to construct the community hall was revoked, only to be reinstated in late 2012 on a limited basis, according to Pope’s complaint.
Over more than four years, the plan has been through 22 public hearings and no comfortable resolution has been reached. In the complaint, the Popes cite instances of immoral and erratic behavior and say the commissioners have not applied county code as it was intended and are acting in “random, capricious, and arbitrary ways that lack merit.”
Included in the list of allegations is a claim that Commissioner Steve Johnson’s vote may have been influenced by a gift of steaks from a neighbor who opposes the Popes’ plan. The complaint claims the Popes are being held to a higher standard than other events centers approved in the area. They point out that Johnson once insisted that hearings need not be fair and equitable, that a judgment should be based only on “harmony and compatibility” with the area.
District I Commissioner Lew Gaiter III said did not know about the complaint until he was contacted for this story. However, based on his reading of the ethics commission website, it appears that the panel deals with financial impropriety. As he understands the complaint, there is no allegation of financial impropriety by him.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” Gaiter said. “However, I respect the Popes’ right to file the complaint.”
He explained that there were three things in the complaint that might have applied to him. He admitted to telling Randy Pope to go ahead and have an event after the board told him not to. “It happened in 2010 and I have apologized to him numerous times both publicly and privately,” Gaiter said.
He admits that he and Commissioner Tom Donnelly had a conversation with Pope following the first hearing in 2010, but said “I don’t know that I said that much.”
Gaiter said he did not report Johnson for a potential ethics violation for receiving two steaks from one of Pope’s neighbors, as is alleged in Pope’s complaint. Under state law, elected officials, including county commissioners, may accept an unsolicited gifts from individuals, but they can’t be valued at more than $50.
“I thought Steve was crystal clear in why he voted no: He wouldn’t want to live next to the event center so he wasn’t going to force the neighbors to,” Gaiter said. “I also don’t think Steve is the kind of person who could be bought.”
According to its website, the Independent Ethics Commission can only address events occurring during the last 12 months, meaning that many of the Popes’ issues cannot be considered by the panel.
The Ethics Commission dealt with 12 complaints in the last year and all of them were either dismissed or stayed.
“We’ll only hear more if the ethics commission decides to investigate,” Gaiter said.