POSTED: 11/23/2018 05:28:30 PM MST
Jerry Sonnenberg isn’t happy about promises that have been broken, and while the rest of us are submerged in the annual holiday extravaganza that is Christmas, the state senator from Colorado’s First Senate District will be trying to get answers about those broken promises.
The source of Sonnenberg’s unhappiness stems from the passage and signing into law of House Bill 18-1291 during the last session of the Colorado General Assembly. Although it flew under the media radar at the time, HB 1291 was supposed to fix everything that was wrong with Colorado’s disastrous conservation easement program.
The program has become a swamp of controversy, lawsuits and conflicts of interest. Originally intended to allow landowners — primarily farmers and ranchers — to preserve tracts of their land and prevent development in exchange for tax credits, the program has become big business for a handful of land appraisers and for middlemen who shepherd landowners through the process in return for a percentage of the credits.
Based on a 2017 “sunset report” that made recommendations about the continuation of the Colorado Conservation Easement Oversight Commission, state Reps. Faith Winter and Dan Thurlow sponsored HB 1291. Rep. Jeni Arndt, chairperson of the House Agriculture Committee, signed on as a co-sponsor and, in the Senate, Jerry Sonnenberg carried the bill as chairman of the Senate Ag Committee.
The bill was supposed to fix the conservation easement system, or at least provide guidance for the people who were tasked with doing so. At the heart of the bill is the establishment of a working group to accomplish four things that were supposed to, in the words of Sterling landowner Alan Gentz, “clean up the mess they’d created.”
First, the working group was supposed to find an appraisal method that was consistent across the state to establish a baseline property value for agricultural property. Second, the group was supposed to recommend a process for petitioning the courts to extinguish conservation easements when such easements were proven to be impossible or impractical. Third, the working group was to come up with a method to make whole landowners whose tax credits had been retroactively denied, forcing some to pay huge sums back to the state and, in some cases, sell their farms and ranches. Finally, the group was supposed to develop a written warning to landowners of the possible consequences of extinguishing their conservation easements.
The working group was supposed to file a report, containing its recommendations, to four legislative committees by Dec. 1.
The bill was signed into law in May. By late summer, the working group still hadn’t been convened. In September the newly-formed Department of Conservation Easements’ new executive director, Mark Weston, decided it was just too late to actually convene a working group. Instead, his department sent out questionnaires asking for written comments.
Not everyone considered a stakeholder got a questionnaire. For instance, Alan and Julie Gentz never got one. The Gentzes spent two years fighting with the Colorado Department of Revenue over more than $700,000 in denied tax credits, penalties, and interest the state says the couple owed. The state had rejected an appraisal of the Gentzes’ land after the couple had claimed tax credits in 2006 and 2007 for enrolling some of their land in the Conservation Easement program. The Gentzes finally settled with the Department of Revenue in 2017, paying back hundreds of thousands of dollars, but hope that HB 1291 will make them whole again.
“All we want is to be made whole in the original tax credits,” Alan Gentz said. “We don’t want attorney’s fees or any other expenses we’ve laid out. We just want the original tax credits the state agreed to in 2006 and 2007.”
When Sonnenberg learned in September that Weston was circumventing the intent of HB 1291, he decided to take matters into his own hands. In an email to interested parties on Sept. 7, Sonnenberg confirmed the conditions that were negotiated for HB 1291 and let the stakeholders — including the Gentzes, fellow lawmakers, and other landowners — know that he wasn’t at all happy with the situation.
“The idea that the Department (of Conservation Easements) will make all the recommendations required by statute from evaluating surveys sent to a select group is not only incompetent, it is embarrassing and continues to show the arrogance and lack of desire (of) those running this program to take responsibility for or help reconcile their mismanagement,” he wrote.
Sonnenberg also was angry that Alan Gentz, in particular, was excluded from the working group process. Gentz, Sonnemnberg said, has been personally recommended to the working group by none other than Senate President Kevin Grantham.
“I assume this is not an isolated instance and the director (Weston) has either chosen to go forward without those appointments or intentionally ignored them; either way is unacceptable.”
Sonnenberg pulled his own working group together on Oct. 3, including Gentz, and told the Journal-Advocate he’ll submit his own report to the legislative committees.
“It is unfortunate that I trusted the folks in the room to do what they said they would do when this compromise was reached, but I should have known better,” Sonnenberg concluded in the email.
On Sept. 12 Weston responded to Sonnenberg’s blast. Weston claimed that his newly-formed department — CEOC had previously been part of the Department of Real Estate but HB 1291 created it as its own Department of Conservation Easements — was overwhelmed with the startup workload and he admitted he was “indeed scrambling to comply with the requirements of the bill you sponsored.”
Weston claimed that hosting a Denver-area meeting “would have excluded numerous landowners who have for many years expressed interest in this program.” He also complained that the new CDCE lacked funds and staff to convene such a working group. And, Weston said, of the 300 survey questionnaires sent out, 54 were returned — about 18 percent — a result he was “pleased to report.”
Sonnenberg was having none of it. Four days later he fired back:
“All of the agencies involved, including yours, said they could do this within their existing resources, which included the working group,” the senator wrote. “You and your department knew this was required and agreed to this process without reservation both publicly and in the negotiating meetings.”
Sonnenberg said Weston never raised any concerns about conducting meetings either throughout the state or in Denver when HB 1291 was being hashed out.
“(W)e shall see how many people will be excluded when I host the working group in October,” he wrote.
Sonnenberg did convene his working group on Oct. 3, and Alan and Julie Gentz did drive to Denver — a not-uncommon occurrence for Coloradans living in rural areas — to participate. Sonnenberg is drafting his report based on that working group and on correspondence he’s had with stakeholders since then, and will submit his report before Dec. 1.
Meanwhile, the senator, who still is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee until the end of the year, has asked Weston and his staff to appear before his committee on Dec. 19 to check on progress on making 1291 a reality.
“I was happy with the bill, as it was signed,” Sonnenberg told the Journal-Advocate this week. “I was not happy that the promises that were made during the negotiations for that bill were not kept. I’ll be anxious to see (Weston’s) report when it is filed.”
Link to original article: http://www.journal-advocate.com/sterling-local_news/ci_32289491/sonnenberg-convenes-working-group-fix-conservation-easement-program