Backed by a court ruling requiring the owner of a Yampa junkyard shut down his facility, Routt County commissioners discussed possible actions to take if the property isn't cleaned up by the judge's Dec. 23 deadline.
County commissioners and planners said they're hopeful the 1-acre area outside of Yampa, which is now covered with piles of broken cars, trucks, appliances, scrap metal and more, will be cleared by operator Tom Cole and property owner Virginia Cole, Tom's mother, within the next few months.
If it is not, the county has permission to remove the junk and charge the costs to the Coles. County commissioners agreed that if that action were necessary, it would not take place until early spring after the snow had melted.
"Hopefully, it's going to be cleaned up. If it's not cleaned up, then we'll deal with it," Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said.
The county has been working with the Coles for more than two decades to try to bring the junkyard into compliance with county codes.
The county's zoning regulations, which were adopted in 1972, do not allow junkyards in areas zoned for agricultural uses, such as the Coles' property on Routt County Road 7, said Routt County Planning Director Caryn Fox. The only areas where junkyards are allowed are in industrial zones.
Tom Cole has said that his junkyard existed before the zoning regulations were adopted, but according to aerial and other photos taken in 1971, there were no more than 15 cars on the property at the time, Routt County planner John Eastman said.
The junkyard was much smaller in the 1980s than it is now, according to other photos.
Over the years, the county has received numerous complaints from the Coles' neighbors. Many worried that the junk, which potentially could leach hazardous materials such as battery fluid or oil, could harm the nearby Yampa River and residential wells, Eastman said. Another problem has been that junk would sometimes block the county road right of way.
The county planning department worked with Tom Cole by notifying him of violations of zoning regulations and giving him time to clean the site, but did not see progress, Eastman said.
Last year, the county decided to bring the case to court, but settled on an agreement with the Coles before the case was heard by a judge.
The agreement allowed the Coles to keep the junkyard for 15 years if they reduced its size and made other improvements, such as cleaning up one section of the property, building a fence around the junkyard and removing any unallowable trash.
After a fifth violation of the agreement was presented in court last month, 14th Judicial District Judge Paul McLimans ruled that the junkyard should be terminated.
"Tom just hasn't come even remotely close to (keeping) his side of the bargain," Eastman said.
Tom Cole was out of town Tuesday but said in an earlier interview that he and his family planned to move to Palisade instead of trying to "fight" the county any more.
Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger said the county's enforcement is an honor-based system that is driven by complaints.
That means that once a complaint about a certain land use is made, Routt County planners research the complaint to see if it's valid and then work with the violator to solve the problem.
Most of the time, the problem is fixed there, Eastman said.
For the few violators who don't want to come into compliance or ignore the county, an official notice of violation is sent, giving the person 30 days to fix the problem they need.
Legal action is a last resort, Eastman said.
The planning department gets about 10 to 20 complaints about land uses each week, Eastman estimated, for a total of 500 to 1,000 a year. Of those, there are about 75 complaints for which the county starts an ongoing case.
Only several cases have ever made it to court.
"Our planning department works really, really hard to try to get these things resolved without going to litigation," Stahoviak said.