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County to Copperleaf: Stop pumping water

Opponents of the Copperleaf subdivision in Wapiti kept the development tied up in court for years with claims that the county improperly allowed it to go forward. Now, the county is taking the subdivision’s owners to court.

In a complaint filed Friday in Park County’s District Court, Park County Commissioners asked a judge to order the subdivision’s homeowners association to stop pumping water from underground wells.

One of the conditions of approval for the 155-lot subdivision — imposed in response to neighbors’ concerns about their water supply — was that the homeowners were required to get the bulk of their water from the Shoshone River, with groundwater wells serving only as an emergency backup system.

The subdivision’s permit says only 300,000 gallons a year can be drawn from Copperleaf’s water wells. Earlier this month, Park County Planning and Zoning staff found that 458,037 gallons of water has already been pumped from the wells this year. It’s the fourth consecutive year that Copperleaf owners have violated the condition, including 1.4 million gallons in 2010.

Earlier this year, the Copperleaf Homeowners Association asked the county for permission to draw as much as 10 million gallons a year from the wells to end their noncompliance, but they suspended that request after a couple contentious public hearings.

“That in so many words told us that, ‘We’re willing to live within the 300,000 gallons,’” said Commission Chairman Tim French in a Tuesday interview. French described the message of the county’s request for an injunction as, “Well, live within the 300,000 gallons then.”

With a down economy and uncertainty over the legal challenges to the subdivision, lot sales in Copperleaf have been sluggish since its completion.

As of February, there were only four water users in the $12 million subdivision. The primary lot owner is Wells Fargo Bank, which foreclosed on the property in late 2010 when the developer, Worthington Group LLC, defaulted on its mortgage.

The reason the homeowner’s association gave for suspending its request was that it needed to learn Wells Fargo’s wishes before going forward.

After the request for more water was suspended in April, commissioners sent the association a letter reminding them of the 300,000 gallon limit.

At the time, commissioners said they planned to impose a fine — up to $750 a day — if the association violated the water condition again.

“We’ve got to have the will to say, every day, there’s a fine,” French said then.

On June 13, county planning staff say they checked on wells, found the limit was exceeded and sent a notice of violation.

The Tribune was unable to immediately get in touch with a Wells Fargo official in Cody and Steve Freudenthal, a Cheyenne attorney representing the homeowners association, on Wednesday afternoon. In a Thursday interview, Freudenthal said he believed Copperleaf "is committed to trying to find a proper resolution for this."

At hearings in February and March, several who opposed Copperleaf when it was proposed eight years ago renewed their concerns that the subdivision’s wells could impact their water wells.

One opponent and adjacent property owner, Robert Hoszwa, said in April that the county allowing more water from the wells “would be robbing from the other people.”

The State Engineer’s Office approved the wells and determined they draw from the same aquifer as the river — meaning there’s little difference between the two sources.

David Jamison, another opponent of Copperleaf, questioned how its practice of selling drinking water to six residences in the nearby Ptarmigan Subdivision qualified as an “emergency” use outlined under the permit.

“Why weren’t their hands slapped and something done when they were doing it in the first place?” Jamison asked.

Some commissioners have expressed similar frustrations.

Commissioner Bucky Hall predicted at an April 10 meeting that the homeowners would violate the subdivision permit this year “because we’ve haven’t done (expletive) yet,” adding that “pretty soon somebody’s going to sue us for it.”

The Shoshone River has served as the primary source of water for Copperleaf, but during some months, particularly around spring run-off, the river’s turbidity is too high for the subdivision’s central water and sewer system to handle; the reason so many gallons are being used for 10 users is that the system has had to be flushed out.

Commissioners had indicated they were going to allow more use of the groundwater wells prior to the association yanking their request from consideration; Hall said the current cap “is basically a cocktail napkin thing” in that it was a guess from the planner at the time.

While 300,000 gallons sounds like a lot of water, “it’s not,” said current County Planner Linda Gillett, noting that the permits from the State Engineer’s Office for the three wells allow the production of up to 68.4 million gallons per year.

French said one of the questions that will have to be shaken out in court is if the county is legally allowed to restrict the subdivision’s use of the wells or if the state engineer’s office “rules the roost.”

No hearing has been set on the county’s request for an injunction to stop the pumping.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a comment from an attorney representing the homeowners association.

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2 comments

  • posted by Jimmy

    July 09, 2012 8:43 pm

    our county commissioners and planning and zoning employees are worthless. They are too lazy to be bothered with enforcing the violations in ralston or powell, but a couple of rich people get on their case and by god they pretend to hop to! The amusing thing is they talk tough but are too lazy to enforce their own rules. Just ask them why, they'll tell you over and over for years that they need to give the offenders a chance to become compliant, even when it's blatantly obvious they are thumbing the law. Vote out the current ones this year, maybe you stand a chance of having positive action taken. If they aren't voted out, no change will happen, mark my words.

  • posted by Disgusted EX taxpayer

    June 29, 2012 9:32 am

    Copperleaf is another pork barrel project the spendaholics in pork county mismanaged.... whats in your wallet?

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