Friday, July 05, 2013

Town of Taos annexation suits allowed to proceed

The town of Taos was dealt a blow June 26 when District Court Judge Jeff McElroy ruled lawsuits filed in opposition to the town’s annexation of the Taos Regional Airport could proceed.

The Town Council voted to annex the airport, which is owned and operated by the town, along with a “shoestring” along six miles of Highway 64 right of way in order to make the property contiguous as required by state statute. The town hopes to collect tax revenue from airport businesses and use it to fund its 5 percent matching portion of a $24 million runway project.

The annexation was soon challenged by Taos County, El Prado Water and Sanitation District and the Acequia Madre del Prado del Río Lucero, which filed lawsuits challenging the town’s action. The suits allege the town violated the appellants’ right to due process and that the town failed to go through the proper steps to annex.

All three parties are being represented by county attorney Robert Malone.

The June 26 hearing was held to decide whether the cases should be dismissed, as the town requested.

At the hearing, town attorney Brian James started by describing the 27-year-long process it took to get to this point on the runway project and the economic benefits a crosswind runway would bring to the area, as well as why the town approached the annexation the way it did. Malone later described James’ statements as an “obvious attempt to prejudice the court.”

James urged the court to respect the separation of powers and allow the legislative act of annexation to proceed despite the county’s “beefs, complaints and nitpicking about the process.” He argued none of the parties have standing to sue over the annexation as none “own a shred of property in the right of way.”

“I believe the standing argument is crystal clear,” he said. “They lack the price of admission here.”

The town did receive permission from the state Department of Transportation before it took action to annex.

James also argued that some challenges made in the suits (writs of quo warrant and mandamus) should be applied solely to administrative, rather than legislative, actions. McElroy agreed with James on that point, but he found that the parties do have standing to challenge the annexation. He said the court must show deference to the municipality’s decision, and going forward the court will only look at whether the statute used to annex is constitutional and whether the statute was properly applied.

McElroy said the facts of the case are not in substantial dispute and asked Malone and James to get together to come up with a set of stipulated facts the court can use to come to a decision.

James wondered whether the case could be expedited so the airport expansion project is not put in jeopardy.

McElroy said he understands the need to handle it quickly.

“This is the top priority of the court,” he said.

Following McElroy’s ruling allowing the suits to move forward, James said he saw the loss of the administrative route as “extremely important” and said the ruling substantially narrows the focus of the cases.

“I’m very encouraged by that,” he said.

County Commissioner Dan Barrone said he was pleased with the ruling, as did county manager Stephen Archuleta. He said the county does not oppose the airport and is only against the annexation, and wants to work with the town.

Soon after the hearing, the town issued a release saying the annexation is “on solid ground.”

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