2023 was a busy year in Southwest Colorado.
The last year was filled with some notable highs, including the unveiling of new trails, progress toward better EMS facilities and a boon of a water year. Federal dollars for infrastructure development continued to flow into the region, hastening critical development projects.
Depending on your perspective, the passage of new oil and gas regulations and the reintroduction of wolves in Colorado was either cause for celebration or the cause of some stress.
Of course, the year wasn’t without its share of hardship.
Property values spiked, sparking frustration from owners on the hook for skyrocketing property taxes. Despite signs that inflation is beginning to level out, prices for goods and services are still up and budget-writers across the region are in a tough spot. Managers of taxing entities in the area said “absolutely not” when Gov. Jared Polis asked them to lower property tax rates, citing increasing costs.
Here’s a look back at some of the most important and memorable news stories The Durango Herald brought you in 2023.
Demonstration trails open at Durango Mesa Park
In September, mountain biking junkies got a preview of a “world class” sprawling bike park and community gathering space eight years and counting in the making.
On Sept. 28, hundreds gathered at the Horse Gulch trailhead in east Durango for what Durango Mayor Melissa Youssef dubbed a “monumental” ribbon-cutting to celebrate the opening of nearly 7 miles of demonstration trails.
The new trails on Durango Mesa, formerly known as Ewing Mesa, include the city’s first-ever downhill directional flow trails, and feature routes for people of all levels of mountain biking experience.
Earlier in September, the city of Durango annexed 1,928 acres of land on the mesa into the city, paving the way for more development in 2024.
Durango Mesa Park board of directors member Gaige Sippy said in June that five crews from AJ Construction, Progressive Trail Design and Durango Trails worked on five demonstration trails, including one beginner and two intermediate one-direction downhill flow trails.
He said the downhill trails are a “paradigm shift” that will require signage and information at the trail’s entry points. All the new trails will be e-bike accessible.
Youssef said the project is unparalleled in its impact to the city.
Durango Fire Protection District, city complete building swap
Decades in the making, DFPD’s quest for a new downtown fire station is finally complete, thanks to a building trade between the two entities that has been in the works all year.
In mid-November, Mayor Melissa Youssef and DFPD board president Karen Barger celebrated the successful deal with a handing over of the keys to River City Hall at 1235 Camino del Rio and the former Durango School District 9-R administration building at 201 E. 12th St.
Ownership of River City Hall, the current location of the downtown fire station that will undergo heavy reconstruction next year, was transferred to DFPD in addition to a payment of $3,586,275, while the fire district signed the rights to the former school building over to the city.
The former 9-R administration building is the planned site of a civic center and base of operations for the city. The building will house various departments like the Durango Police Department and the Community Development Department, the latter of which presently resides in River City Hall adjacent to the fire station.
Work on renewing the fire station is slated to start in February. City Manager José Madrigal said the city is hoping to reveal the first of two civic center concepts early in 2024.
Now-retired DFPD Fire Chief Hal Doughty was honored for his work in securing a place for a new and improved downtown fire station at The Hundred Club of Durango’s annual banquet celebrating 49 years as an organization this year.
The club collects membership fees and donations to be distributed to families of first responders killed or maimed in the line of duty.
At the banquet in November, founding members Don Mapel and Dr. Forrest Dean Brown were celebrated during a changing of the guard.
Durango Transit tried an expanded free rides program to locals and tourists this summer, and just as administrators and staff members anticipated, people loved it.
Durango transportation director Sarah Hill said ridership had impressive spikes in June through August when every public bus and route in the city were free to ride.
Durango Transit saw a combined 77,440 combined riders between June and July 2023, compared with 59,658 combined riders between June and July 2022. August 2023 ridership surpassed 2022 ridership in the same month by nearly 10,000 rides, according to city transportation data.
The free rides program, which was only rolled out for the month of August last year, even helped post-program ridership, Hill said.
In September 2022, Durango Transit gave 35,343 regular fare rides. In September 2023, it provided 35,953 rides.
Durango City Council approved funding in the 2024 budget to relaunch the program next summer.
The city also started a late night on-demand public bus service for late night workers, students and people looking to enjoy a responsible night out on the town.
Legal battles continue between city, watchdog
What began as a request for 2021 draft financial documents has spiraled into a heated legal contest between the city of Durango and Durango resident John Simpson.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Suzanne Carlson ruled in favor of Simpson in February and ordered the city to make the documents sought by him publicly available.
The city’s position is that draft financial statements are “work products,” incomplete documents that may be accurate pending an independent audit, and subjecting incomplete work to Colorado Open Records Act requests could discourage third party auditors from accepting contracts with the city.
However, Carlson didn’t see things that way when she said in an analysis the city’s reaction to Simpson’s records request was “chilling,” “overblown” and “could cause significant public harm.”
The city expects results on its appeal some time in January.
The plot thickened in October, however, when City Attorney Mark Morgan served Simpson with a cease and desist letter, citing thousands of improper emails directed at councilors, staff members, and the city manager and Morgan. The letter accuses Simpson of harassing city employees and officials and threatens legal action if he doesn’t stop.
In December, Simpson and his Pagosa Springs attorney Matt Roane, who has a history of pursuing lawsuits against school districts and municipalities, were struck by another ruling by Carlson that attorney fee awards sought by Roane in the open records lawsuit were “overstated.”
Simpson also faces criticism from the city over correspondence with Durango Councilor Olivier Bosmans, in which the pair discuss how to circumvent council opposition and share internal emails with councilors and staff.
Gun violence spikes
Gun violence spiked late this year in La Plata County.
Three people were killed and four people were injured in four separate shootings between August and December.
The first occurred about 12:45 a.m. Aug. 9 at the Red Cliff Apartments in north Durango, where Troy Allen Brown, 34, allegedly broke into another man’s house and began shooting. Thomas Jeffrey Mitchell, who was 52 at the time, suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Brown has been charged with attempted murder.
The second occurred at about 9:30 p.m. Oct. 23 at Santa Rita Park, where a 19-year-old man and two 17-year-old boys allegedly opened fire on a group of people – some of whom were preparing for a fistfight. Rodney D. Bellino, 47, was killed, and three teenagers were wounded.
The third shooting occurred two days later at about 3 a.m. Oct. 25 at the Wapiti Lodge, where Jonnie Cash Kimbrough, 20, allegedly shot and killed Quentin Mayberry, 25. According to a witness, Mayberry refused to leave the motel room and Kimbrough shot him in the head.
The fourth shooting occurred Dec. 20 south of Durango near High Flume Canyon. Randal Moon, 53, of La Plata County, was killed in the shooting. As of Dec. 21, the Sheriff’s Office released few details about the shooting, including whether any arrests had been made.
Arrest made in Ignacio cold case
An Arizona man was arrested May 18 on the Navajo Nation in connection with a 14-year-old cold case in Ignacio.
David Hendren, 38, has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with the shooting death of Larry Fuller. Fuller was fatally shot on Jan. 1, 2009, while walking home from a New Year’s Eve celebration.
Investigators believe the shooting stemmed from an altercation at a bar earlier that night. One of Fuller’s family members, who spoke with the Herald after Hendren’s arrest, said Hendren told authorities he did not mean to kill Fuller but had mistaken him for someone else.
A jury trial is scheduled to begin in May.
Students challenge Durango school district over right to carry Narcan
Durango School District 9-R became the first school district in the state of Colorado to allow students carry Narcan.
After a demonstration and multiple conversations between a group of students and the district, the board of education sided with the students in allowing the superintendent to assume the legal risk of developing a Narcan policy.
This would later lead to students Hays Stritikus and Leo Stritikus as well as others to introduce this issue at the state level.
“The power and success in our movement really came from the student body,” Leo said in a June 17 interview. “It was truly a very beautiful thing, because we had people from all sorts of social groups, all sorts of backgrounds together on this united front.”
The policy says that properly trained students who administer Narcan in accordance with the policy do so as “agents” of the district and shall not be liable for certain civil damages and criminal prosecutions. It also says students will not face disciplinary action for refusing to be trained in the administration of an opioid antagonist.
Bayfield chartering authority approved
Bayfield School District’s application for Exclusive Chartering Authority was approved by the Colorado State Board of Education, making the school district the sole authorizer for future charter school placement in February.
Bayfield Superintendent Leon Hanhardt said the district had recently learned it did not have chartering authority. This came on the heels of Front Range based charter school Ascent Classical Academy being denied charter status by both Durango School District 9-R and Ignacio School District No. 11Jt.
Former Bayfield Board of Education President Mike Foutz told the Herald in February that Ascent contacted the district in January with an interest in setting up a charter school in the area.
Since then, nothing has been announced from the district or Ascent.
Miller Middle School construction project reaches halfway point
Construction started in January for the new Miller Middle School Building.
The roughly $45 million project includes a 60,000-square-foot, three-story building where the football field currently sits east of the existing school building.
The plan also calls for keeping a more modern portion of the building, which was added in 2004. That building’s located on the school’s east wing. An elevated bridge will connect the buildings.
The district intends to have the new building ready for students entering the Fall 2024 semester.
“It’s been so much fun to see it go from a cement slab to framing to construction,” Miller Middle School Principal Vernadette Norman said on Nov. 30. “They’ve (the students) watched it all happen because in the summer, it was dirt.”
Lone Spur Cafe seized by the Colorado Department of Revenue
On Aug. 29, Lone Spur Cafe was seized by the state of Colorado after owing nearly $200,000 in delinquent taxes.
The seizure came just weeks after former employees reached out to the Herald, revealing the business’ poor business practices, which included distributing faulty checks and poor working conditions.
County records show that Lone Spur Chief Executive Officer Cory Farley is listed as the owner of the building.
All of the business’ personal property, fixtures, equipment and inventory were auctioned off, according to a CDOR Notice of Public Sale.
Olde Tymers Cafe closes its doors
Olde Tymers Cafe closed in August after former owner Mark Cavalli struggled with building renovation costs, as well as staffing and labor issues.
Inflation costs and increased labor costs also hurt the restaurant. Cavalli said his employees deserved to be paid a lot more than just $13 per hour. He said that costs increase by 60% because of inflation.
As of Dec. 21, the Olde Tymers space is still vacant.
Stephanie Morris Nissan Dealership abruptly shuts down
In October, Stephanie Morris Nissan mysteriously closed.
Customers later came forward accusing the dealership of poor business practices, including forgery. Records from the Colorado Secretary of State show the business became delinquent on July 1 in Colorado for failing to file a periodic report.
New Mexico resident Michelle Gamblin accused the dealership of tampering with a lease agreement on a Nissan Pathfinder after trading in her Dodge Ram. Durango police investigated the dealership, but did not have substantial evidence to move forward with charges.
“We believe at this point, that there are civil remedies to this and that criminal elements haven’t been established,” Durango police Cmdr. Deck Shaline said.
The District Attorney’s office reviewed the police department’s investigation in October.
New oil and gas regulations adopted
After more than two years and 29 meetings, La Plata County adopted new code regulating oil and gas operations in April. The regulations, known as Chapter 90 because of the location in the land-use code, build on state regulations adopted in 2020.
The approval process was lengthy, controversial and a bit arduous. Volunteer members of the Planning Commission grew confused, and perhaps a bit disgruntled, over their role in the process. Members of the public traded jabs in open forums. Industry and conservation groups also butted heads, although in a more copacetic capacity.
The new regulations are more restrictive than the state’s, which are already some of the most stringent in the country. Chapter 90 increases, in some cases, the distance that wells may be drilled from certain types of structures and has a reciprocal impact on the building of those structures from existing wells.
“I think what we’ve really tried to do is thread a needle here,” said Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton the day of the vote.
Environmental groups expressed concerns that the regulations did not go far enough, while members of the oil and gas industry decried the increased restrictions. Chapter 90 took effect Aug. 1.
One treasurer out, another one in
La Plata County got a new treasurer and public trustee in November, when Ann “Moni” Grushkin was sworn in to the office.
The Board of County Commissioners appointed her in September after Allison Aichele announced in July that she would step down from the position effective Nov. 4.
Grushkin has previously served as a senior executive at multiple banks, as well as the director of technical project management at PeopleCare Health Services and the director of revenue and yield at Purgatory Resort. She spent the interim time between her appointment and ascension to the position training under Mesa County Treasurer Sheila Reiner.
Aichele resigned less than nine months after she was reelected to a third term. She gave little explanation for her departure other than to say it was time for a new chapter in her life. During the process of finding a replacement, county commissioners made serial references to customer service and morale problems in the office.
Saying goodbye to San Juan Basin Public Health
New Year’s Eve marks the end of San Juan Basin Public Health’s final chapter in a 75-year history. The department served a health district composed of Archuleta and La Plata counties.
The politicization of public health during the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation beginning in 2020, and Southwest Colorado was no exception. Dialogue devolved into protest, and soon the pandemic’s political wedge began to drive itself between the two counties.
Commissioners in both counties ultimately voted in November 2022 to dissolve their shared district. The votes were a starting gun of sorts, setting off a year of work to establish new health departments within each county to fulfill the statutorily mandated public health services.
The year was rife with anxiety for SJBPH employees, who waited in limbo to learn if they would have jobs with the counties (most of them do) as the institution began to wind down while still working to provide critical services.
Two directors left the department as it became clear they would not be offered jobs at the new departments, events that transpired as revelations about large amounts of emergency compensation came to light.
Wolves arrive on the Western Slope
Arguably the biggest environmental story in the region occurred on Dec. 18, when Colorado Parks and Wildlife fulfilled a mandate by releasing five gray wolves in Grand County. The state released another five wolves on Dec. 22.
Coloradans directed CPW to reintroduce wolves in 2020 after Proposition 114 passed by slim margins, backed heavily by Front Range voters. The proposition gave CPW until the end of 2023 to begin the reintroduction of the predator to the West Slope.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized a 10(j) rule in November designating Colorado wolves as an experimental population, which allows them to be killed in certain circumstances. Over the coming months, CPW may collect as many as five more wolves from Oregon as it works to fulfill the mandate of introducing 30 to 50 wolves over the next five years.
“Whether you love wolves or whether you hate wolves, wolves are truly now a part of Colorado,” Gov. Jared Polis said at a news conference following the release.
The water year Colorado needed
One year is not enough to pull the Colorado River Basin out of a historic, two-decade drought, but 2023 wasn’t bad.
Of course, downstream reservoirs are still perilously low and the big question of how the river’s users will address the critical shortage remains. But within the state snowpack, it was well above average across the state and reservoirs refilled.
McPhee Reservoir, north of Cortez, had so much water that managers were able to release boatable flows into the Dolores river from May through most of June.
It was the first time since 2019 that the river was floatable. The water meant Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials were able to conduct a fish survey and opened access to droves of whitewater fanatics.
The winter storms also brought Purgatory Resort its fourth-largest snow year in recorded history.
State settles with feds over Gold King damage
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced in May that the state had reached a $5 million settlement with the federal government over the Environmental Protection Agency’s role in natural resources damage caused by the 2015 Gold King Mine spill.
The agreement follows several other multimillion-dollar agreements inked between Colorado and parties responsible for the disaster.
The $5 million pales in comparison to the settlements struck by New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, although close observers say that Colorado will receive a far larger share overall of Gold King impact-related spending.
“Both La Plata County and San Juan County took a step and a pretty big risk by trying to play nicely with the EPA when this spill happened,” San Juan County Commissioner Austin Lashley told Weiser a week after the announcement. “I think, in hindsight, we might look back and choose a different course based on our downstream neighbors and the remediation funding that they’ve been given from the federal government.”
Peter Butler, the chairman of the Community Advisory Group meant to give input to the EPA, also announced in November that he would step away from the group, citing frustration with the EPA’s rampant spending and small impact.
In May, Butler said that although the settlement is small, the state can deploy it more efficiently than a federal agency.