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Durango City Council pushes back on Southern Ute’s claim of illegal land grab

Councilors decline invitation to meet with tribe, deciding to ‘let calmer heads prevail’
Durango City Council was caught off guard by comments made last week to a Colorado Senate committee by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. The tribe accused the city of attempting an illegal land grab located within the tribe’s exterior boundaries. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Durango city councilors were taken aback this week by assertions from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe that the city is trying to sneakily annex land within the tribe’s reservation boundaries.

City Council held a special meeting to discuss comments made by the tribe to the Colorado Senate Committee on State, Veterans, & Military Affairs on April 17.

Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council Vice Chairman Lorelei Cloud and tribal counsel testified to the committee in support of Colorado Senate Bill 193, which passed the committee and was sent to the Senate for more discussion at the conclusion of that meeting.

The council voted to have the city attorney research the proposed legislation, which if passed would require any land annexations within the boundary of a reservation to be approved by that tribe.

City Council also voted to temporarily suspend development plans of La Posta Road (County Road 213), which include the potential annexation of private property within tribal boundaries, until city staff can present a recommendation of whether to support, oppose or remain neutral on the pending state legislation.

Cloud told senators last week the city of Durango is making an illegal land grab across reservation boundaries south of city limits in the La Posta Road area, in violation of treaties between the tribe and the federal government dating back a century, in addition to a 1984 federal law.

She also said the city and the tribe have always had a difficult relationship: the city has no interest in cooperating with the tribe on projects of mutual interest and the city is threatening the tribe’s sovereignty and culture in its move to subvert and annex land.

Councilors disagreed.

“Vice Chair Cloud intentionally painted the city of Durango in a light to get what she wanted,” Mayor Jessika Buell said on Monday.

Jessika Buell

Buell said she wants to work with the tribe because working productively together is in the best interest of the community. But the picture painted last week “is not helping at all.”

Councilor Dave Woodruff said accusations that the city is not being open about La Posta Road plans are “disingenuous” based on a staff presentation about the history of the project and recent actions taken with it.

“It feels like what was stated and what has happened are two different things and there’s probably two different lenses that could be put on this,” he said.

Durango Community Development Director Scott Shine said Durango has held nine staff and city/tribal council meetings with SUIT over the past 14 months and the city’s interest in La Posta Road has been public knowledge since 1997, or nearly 30 years.

He said planning meetings began in 2006 and 2007, but because of the Great Recession and other factors, the city’s area plan idled.

The plan was jointly adopted by the city and La Plata County in 2013, with development review processes falling under the county’s jurisdiction, he said. But then it was placed on pause again.

The plan wasn't revisited again until 2019-2020, beside a short-lived, unsuccessful attempt to revisit the plan in 2017, he said.

The city, county, La Plata Economic Development Alliance and SUIT jointly funded a sewer conceptual plan in 2020, he added. A statement about the tribe’s interest in the project was included in a request for proposals for a sewer study to expand sewer services to the area.

“There’s hundreds of acres that they own further down La Posta Road. And they were interested in having services to that area in order to develop that in a more intensive way than just staying on county services,” Shine said.

The city reached out to SUIT in August 2022 to update the tribe about recent activities and future plans for the area.

What followed were a number of joint council and staff meetings with SUIT, the latest being held Feb. 28.

On Monday, City Council voted to decline an invitation by Southern Ute Indian Tribal Chairman Melvin Baker for a joint meeting on Wednesday or Thursday.

A majority of councilors were opposed to meeting so shortly after Cloud’s testimony to the Senate committee with the reasoning, as Woodruff put it, “there’s a lot of passion around this right now and I feel that anything that would be said in a meeting so close to that testifying … would only inflame the rhetoric and it could potentially lead to dissolution or dissolve relations.”

“Let calmer heads prevail,” he said.

State Sen. Cleave Simpson, who represents Southwest Colorado, said in an interview on Wednesday that SUIT’s and the city’s versions of collaboration or lack thereof on La Posta Road don’t necessarily impact the legislation in question.


The bill in question “is an affirmation of the Southern Ute Tribes’ jurisdiction that’s outlined in federal legislation,” he said.

He said he has consulted with the Colorado attorney general’s office, SUIT and City Council members and he is interested in facilitating a collaborative approach between the tribe and the city moving forward.

Simpson suggested it could be possible for SUIT’s authority over annexation to be reaffirmed and the city can find another way to link property owners up to city services.

“I'm hopeful there's, you know, some room somehow, some way that we can collaborate,” he said. “That's a term we've thrown around pretty routinely here, but ... trying to get better outcomes for the entire community.”


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