For the second time in six years, the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that counties can tax ski areas, park concessionaires and others who use public lands for profit. In a 4-3 decision issued Feb. 21, the court found that a 1996 law granting property-tax exemptions to entities with "possessory interests" in public lands violates the state's constitution. The ruling affects individuals or corporations with long-term leases, permits, or contracts to use state or federal land.
The ruling stemmed from a 1988 case in southwestern Colorado's Montezuma County. Private campground owners complained to county commissioners that the concessionaire at Mesa Verde National Park, the Mesa Verde Company, had a competitive advantage because it did not have to pay property taxes on its use of park land. The commission's attorney, Bob Slough, believed this violated a section of the state constitution. The commissioners ordered the county assessor to begin taxing the company's possessory interest in the land occupied by its campground, lodge and gift store.
The company appealed, citing a long-existing state law exempting such uses from taxation. Eventually the case reached the state Supreme Court, which ruled 5-2 in 1995 that the law was illegal. Lobbyists for Denver's sports franchises, which face millions of dollars in new property taxes, helped draft legislation to circumvent the ruling, but a handful of Colorado counties flouted the new law and continued taxing possessory interests. Their defiance brought the issue back to the high court this year.
The corporations involved filed for a rehearing, but their petition was denied. Attorney Slough, who has pursued the seemingly quixotic quest for 13 years, is pleased that the second ruling will stand. "I really believe this is a good thing," he says. "Now people operating on public lands will presumably have to share the (county) tax burden."