Opponents of a proposed quarry in southeastern El Paso County are breathing a sigh of relief.
All 90 individuals and organizations who objected to the proposed Hitch Rack Quarry during a public comment period, now defendants in a legal complaint, won't have to foot the legal bill of Transit Mix Concrete, the quarry proponent.
Transit Mix agreed to drop its request for attorney fees, which was in a January complaint seeking a judicial review. The company wants a judge to overturn the state Mined Land Reclamation Board's denial of its application to mine roughly 400 acres just west of Colorado 115 near Little Turkey Creek Road.
Transit Mix and several of its opponents filed a proposed resolution Friday in El Paso County District Court. Residents had viewed the request for legal fees as a tactic to silence opposition when the company applies for a permit again, which it has told The Gazette it will do in the next few months.
"Transit Mix is backing off any threats to the 90 defendants," said attorney Bruce Wright, who represents Turkey Cañon Ranch Homeowner's Association, a defendant in the case. "I'm pleased that we removed the cloud over all those 90 people."
Lawyers in the legal battle, as well as third-party attorneys, have called the request for attorney fees a "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation," or SLAPP, a tactic corporations have used to quash opposition.
Last month, Wright filed a motion arguing that the company has "no legal basis" to ask for attorney fees simply because opponents exercised their First Amendment rights to speak out against the quarry, which they believe could threaten their water supply and the environment.
Another lawyer for a trust that owns land near the quarry site filed a similar motion, calling the request for legal fees a "SLAPP brought to intimidate and silence objectors."
In the proposed agreement filed Friday, both attorneys agreed to dismiss those motions, as well as any requests that the court level sanctions against Transit Mix for seeking attorney fees.
A judge had not signed the order as of Tuesday evening, but Wright said it's likely to be approved because both parties concur.
Transit Mix has denied seeking legal fees to intimidate anyone, saying the fees request was to notify other parties that the company might ask a judge to award the fees if any of the defendants "engaged in bad behavior, and if the relevant statute or rule allowed such a recovery as a result," said company attorney John Cook in a March email.
Cook, a partner at international law firm Hogan Lovells' office in Colorado Springs, said Tuesday that both sides came to agreement "at Transit Mix's urging."
"We are pleased that the parties and the Court may now direct their focus to the more substantive issues at hand," he said by email.
The Mined Land Reclamation Board cited several factors in denying Transit Mix's application. Those included risks that the quarry could endanger a nearby wildlife corridor and disturb the system of underground cracks and fractures that holds the local water supply. The company also didn't demonstrate that it had the legal rights to enter into a tract of private land required for the proposed site, the board said. In its second application, Transit Mix expects to address such issues. The company originally proposed mining 400 acres north and south of Little Turkey Creek. The revised plan likely would seek to mine fewer than 200 acres south of the creek and would reduce the quarry's expected lifetime from 55 to 30 years.
Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108