Congressman proposes condemnation ban to help Piñon expand

TOM ROEDER Updated: April 20, 2010 at 12:00 am • Published: April 20, 2010

A Colorado congressman is trying to help the Army get training land in Las Animas County by banning the service from seizing it.

GOP Rep. Mike Coffman’s HR5067, introduced Tuesday, would forbid the use of condemnation for expansion of Fort Carson’s Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site. By doing that, the bill would set in stone the Army’s pledge that it won’t seize land to add 100,000 acres to the 235,000-acre training site near Trinidad.

But the measure, by allaying land-seizure fears, could also avert an all-out expansion ban that Congress has placed on the project annually as part of the Pentagon budget bill, a Coffman spokesman said.

“We must respect the private property rights of those who own ranch lands in the proposed 100,000 acre expansion area,” Coffman, of Aurora, said in a statement. “They should neither have to fear that the government will take their land nor the worry that government, at any level, will restrict their rights by making it difficult for them to sell or lease their land to the U.S. Army should they choose to do so.”

The Army has sought property adjacent to the training site for since 2005, but has seen its efforts foiled by strong opposition from ranchers and overwhelming opposition in the U.S. House. There, Colorado Democratic Rep. John Salazar has led the charge to ban funding for the project.

Coffman, a Marine veteran, has backed expansion and sees his condemnation ban as a way to keep ranchers happy while preserving funds for the Army to buy land from those who want to sell.

“This would be a permanent fix,” said Nat Sillin, Coffman’s spokesman.

If the Army has a seller waiting among the vast ranches that surround the site, it would also allow a deal to happen in a hurry, since the Pentagon already authorized the Army to seek a land deal.

The Army has said modern technology requires land for soldiers to properly train for combat. The post also contends that the 11,000 soldiers added to Fort Carson since 2005 could overtax its training land.

But after its initial push to get land was turned back, the Army toned down its desires. Fort Carson cut the amount of land sought from 418,000 acres to 100,000 acres and issued repeated assurances that it would obtain land only from those who want to sell it.

But even if a law passes banning condemnation proceedings, opponents to the expansion say they won’t shrink from the fight.

“There’s no way to acquire that much land without condemning somebody,” said Piñon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition President Lon Robertson of Kim, a nearby town.

Robertson said opponents will still seek a funding ban for the fiscal year that starts Oct.1, using a tried-and-true argument.

“They have enough land already,” he said.

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