Accusations surface in Grand Lake

A group of horses owned by Cindy and Haden Southway stand together in a pasture outside Granby this photo taken in 2013. The horses are now being housed on a property in Grand Lake.
Byron Hetzler / Sky-Hi News

Recent accusations in Grand Lake were punctuated last week by the town manager alleging two elected public officials have acted to deprive Grand Lake of tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes.

An email that Grand Lake Town Manager John Crone sent all trustees except Trustee Cindy Southway on Sept. 15 brought his accusations against her, her husband and Grand County Assessor Tom Weydert before the town board.

In the email, Crone alleged Southway and her husband “have been conspiring” with the owners of a 15-acre parcel where the Southways keep their horses to have the property assessed as agricultural, even though the town’s zoning requirements prohibit such use anywhere in Grand Lake.

In response, Southway said that the allegations are baseless and without merit, that horses have been pastured on the property for as long as anyone alive can remember, and that the agricultural land use is grandfathered in through town code.

Instead, Southway said that she’s been the target of escalating attacks, which she believes are an attempt to intimidate her into silence after opposing the mayor and town manager on certain issues, allegations that Crone denies.

In the email to trustees, Crone further alleged that Southway and her husband, Hayden Southway, who was on the town’s planning commission when the property’s zoning was last revised, received the favorable assessment from Grand County Assessor Tom Weydert, who himself was serving as a trustee “when this scheme was in operation and never informed the town despite his oath to uphold the town code.”

Weydert and his wife, Kathy, have been staunch critics of Grand Lake Mayor Steve Kudron and the town manager as they’ve helped lead an effort to recall the mayor. Hayden Southway has also supported the recall effort while Cindy Southway has said she’s stayed neutral on it.

Speaking over the phone Monday, Weydert disputed what’s written in Crone’s email with Weydert contending the assessor’s office had no leeway with the assessment, nor any obligation to report it to the town.

After the town attorney weighed in on the issue, it seems as if one of the biggest issues at play might come down to history and how long horses have been pastured on the land, which would make the use a “legal nonconforming use,” which Weydert, the Southways and the Southways’ attorney all believe it is.

Assessing accusations

Days before Crone sent trustees the email, other accusations were flying at the Sept. 13 Grand Lake Board of Trustees with Mayor Kudron teeing off on Tom Weydert in his job as county assessor.

At that meeting, Kudron revealed that he will be selling his Grand Lake home and moving into his short-term rental in town, a decision that Kudron said was aided by an unfavorable assessment and delayed action at the county assessor’s office.

Kudron began his remarks during the mayor’s report by describing how he and his wife took their first vacation in 10 years about a month ago — “a little shakedown of (their) RV.” They didn’t know where they wanted to go, he said, but they knew they wanted to take some time together through what’s been a very challenging year.

“I can’t tell you how disappointing it was when I was told by multiple people that the rumor was I had moved out of town and that I should resign,” Kudron said of his return. “My gosh! Let’s get real, folks. Has it really gotten that bad?

“So today I’m making an announcement: By the end of the month, the home I live in — 408 Park Ave. — is going to go on the market. For the Realtors in the room, ‘$649,000.’ Bring me a buyer before then, it will be a good deal.”

With the sale, Kudron said he and his wife will move across the street into their short-term rental unit and give up the revenue from renting that they’ve realized since buying the home in 2018 for over $1.3 million.

Kudron told the audience that he “financed way more money than (he) could afford” when he purchased the home “with a business plan and a belief that a home like that could provide short-term rental opportunities.”

In addition to bringing in sales taxes and people into Grand Lake, Kudron said he had been relying on that rental income.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t make up for the $78,130 in personal property taxes that have been assessed on that property as a result of a state law that allows the county assessor to make that assessment,” Kudron continued, alleging that he had been singled out by the county assessor to pay the 29% commercial rate on the property.

“I have asked over 50 short-term rental owners in the county, nobody else has received that,” Kudron continued. “The law is the law. What the assessor did is not illegal, but it’s not right.”

Kudron went on to reference a number of other current issues in Grand Lake, such as marijuana and park upkeep, as he continued his impassioned speech that mixed peacemaking with the mayor lambasting some of the criticism in town.

“Don’t start spreading rumors and making things not right,” Kudron said. “There’s enough disagreement amongst us, let the people hear the truth. This is crazy, folks. It’s putting our entire community at odds with each other.”

Another assessment

Reached over the phone on Monday, Weydert took serious issue with Kudron’s comments during the Sept. 13 meeting, in addition to disputing Crone’s email.

“First of all, (the accusations in Crone’s email) are totally baseless,” Weydert said, adding that he has had conversations with Crone regarding the property and believes the spat is related to Cindy Southway’s position on other issues.

Weydert explained that the property is not owned by the Southways, and the property owners are the ones who get the ag classification on a yearly basis because of the activities on the property.

“We have done all of our statutory due diligence,” Weydert said of the assessor’s office. “(The property owners) meet all of the state requirements for ag classification, so therefore they get it — end of story.”

In terms of Kudron’s accusations that the assessor’s office has singled the mayor out for a higher tax rate, Weydert said that the property appraiser for the Grand Lake area is in charge of detailing property classifications. Weydert said the assessor’s office reviews the classifications, but he is not directly responsible for them.

“And I will tell you that because of everything we do that’s so critically important to all the taxing entities … we’re audited by the state on all these items, so for John Crone to make these allegations is just ludicrous,” Weydert said.

In response to Kudron’s remarks, Weydert said he knew there could be a perception he was biased against Kudron, so he made sure to take a hands-off approach with Kudron’s assessment, leaving it in the hands of Deputy Assessor Deb Lindblom.

“The valuation and the assessment was handled in the normal course of business,” Lindblom said over the phone Wednesday.

Additionally, Weydert said the accusations against him and the Southways are tied to the upcoming recall ballot and other issues, not a result of any actual wrongdoing on their part. Recall ballots were mailed out to voters on Sept. 12.

“This question that John (Crone) is bringing up was answered back in January,” Weydert said of the agricultural land assessment on the property the Southways lease. “For him to now bring up these allegations at the time that ballots go out, I don’t really believe in coincidences like that.”

Weydert said the assessor’s office has worked “strictly all by statute.”

In terms of Kudron’s comments on Sept. 13, Weydert said he believes Kudron was out of place using the mayor’s report to air what Weydert characterized as a personal complaint.

“It really irritates me that he’s putting such a cloud on the ethics of our office and what we do,” Weydert said. “Like I said, everything that we’ve done, we’ve done statutorily.”

A blistering email

In the email sent to every Grand Lake trustee but one, the town manager levied a series of accusations against Southway and her husband, most notably that they’ve been operating a for-profit horse ranch in violation of town code.

“As a result of the scheme, in 2021 only $22.02 in taxes were charged against the 15.4 acre parcel,” Crone wrote in the email. “In contrast, I have paid $1,023.48 on my 0.2 acre parcel on the edge of town.”

He went on to say that “the Southways’ scheme has cost the town, the school district, the rec district, the fire department, and other public entities tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue, if not hundreds of thousands,” over the years.

Crone added that the Southways were informed of “their illegal actions” in January and offered several options to correct them, but have taken no action since the initial conversations. Crone wrote that the Southways’ recent actions “indicate they have no intention of cooperating with the town to solve this very distressing situation.”

“As a result of the Southways’ resistance to take responsibility for their illegal actions, I feel compelled to officially bring these ethical violations to the board’s attention for action,” Crone’s email concluded. “I am also meeting with the district attorney for the 14th Judicial District to ask for a criminal investigation.”

Hold your horses

The district attorney confirmed last week that Crone had reached out to the DA’s office and left a message, but Crone said Wednesday that he is holding off on that action for the moment, as he acknowledged that he might have called for a criminal investigation prematurely.

“I wrote the email unaware of the court case that our attorney mentioned,” Crone said. “So I am not necessarily saying that my accusations are incorrect. I’m saying they could be incorrect and we need to get more information.”

On Monday, town attorney Dan Krob issued an opinion that seemed to side with Weydert, the Southways and an assessment from the Southway’s attorney regarding the land use designation.

“The use of the property to pasture multiple horses is likely protected as a legal non-conforming use, which cannot be prohibited by the town unless and until such use is discontinued for a period of 12 consecutive months or longer,” Krob wrote in his opinion obtained by the Sky-Hi News.

On Wednesday, Krob said the opinion was a private communication between him and the board and protected by attorney-client privilege, explaining why he could not discuss it in public without authorization.

In the analysis, Krob cited town code and case law as he wrote it’s his understanding that, “the property has been used to pasture more than one horse for a number of years, including a period of time before the town’s zoning ordinances were initially enacted in 1976, although this is a factual issue that may need to be investigated further.”

“Our attorney is conducting a more thorough investigation into whether the use is a legal nonconforming use or not,” Crone said on Wednesday. “That involves getting all tax records. Ordinarily, (the landowner) has the burden of proving that it is a nonconforming legal use.”

Crone explains email

While Crone said that more research needs to be done in regards to how the property’s land use relates to town code, he maintains the horses are being housed on the property in violation of town code and that his efforts are focused on raising compliance where it has been lacking.

“I brought this up with the Southways nine months ago, and they took no action and have not communicated with me about it whatsoever, (and) I had mentioned it a couple more times since then, so that’s why I pushed forward with this,” Crone said.

Crone also said that the agricultural assessment came to his attention while doing research for the town’s purchase of the Stanley Property.

Looking at some of the bigger parcels in town, Crone recalled that he noticed the agricultural designation on the 15-acre property, knew the town does not allow for such a use and wanted to correct the problem.

He disagrees with those who say he was targeting Cindy Southway for political reasons.

Crone emphasized that his email to trustees came after receiving little to no communication from the Southways after repeated attempts to address the issue and after seeing no signs that they intended to fix what he still perceives as a hypocritical situation.

“It’s not tied to the recall,” Crone said of his email. “I brought this up nine months ago and the reason I’m pushing right now is because we’re getting a lot of feedback about not enforcing code in town … This issue has been a real conundrum for my code enforcement officer and for me both.

“Just because the recall is going doesn’t mean we can stop running government, and we need to start enforcing code, and we can’t really start enforcing code if we’re letting our trustees get away with breaking it.”

A history of horses

In response to Crone’s email, Southway said the property behind her family’s home, which she and her husband lease, has been used as the Grand Lake rodeo grounds and as agricultural land for probably more than 100 years.

“It has never had a home on it and has always been used for agricultural purposes,” Southway explained. “The community seems to enjoy our horses and the open space, which is visible from several areas within town. To my knowledge, the property has had ag status since at least the 1930s or whenever ag status was created in Colorado.”

Southway continued by saying that several businesses and ag operations have previously owned or leased the land to pasture horses and that her family’s use of the property is actually rather recent. She also disputes that the county assessor gave her or the landowner any illegal or improper assessments.

“We do not own the property and have never dealt with Tom Weydert on the tax assessment,” Southway said. “There was never any scheme to defraud the town of Grand Lake. To my knowledge, the property has never been assessed as vacant land.”

Southway said that when Crone first contacted her and her husband about this issue, she and her husband reached out to the landowner, their attorney and the town attorney. They didn’t respond after that because they thought the issue had been handled, she said.

“We were told that the town manager should have been addressing the owner of the property, not us,” Southway said. “To our knowledge, the town manager has never contacted the landowner about this issue.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

The Sky-Hi News strives to deliver powerful stories that spark emotion and focus on the place we live.

Over the past year, contributions from readers like you helped to fund some of our most important reporting, including coverage of the East Troublesome Fire.

If you value local journalism, consider making a contribution to our newsroom in support of the work we do.