Officials in Colorado town abused power to run off competing RV park, lawsuit alleges

A pair of elected officials in a small town in El Paso County abused their power and changed town regulations to run off a business competitor, according to allegations in an antitrust lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court this month.

The lawsuit alleges Cameron Chaussee, formerly mayor of Calhan, and his cousin Tyler Chaussee, formerly a town council member, voted to pass onerous regulations in 2018 aimed at preventing a new RV park from opening down the road from an existing RV park owned by the Chaussee family.

“They put this massive new hurdle up,” said Eric Hall, attorney for Van Sant & Co., the plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The allegations revolve around two properties in Calhan, which has a population of about 780 and is situated about 30 miles northeast of Colorado Springs.

One property, Cadillac Jack’s RV Park & Campground, is an operating RV park on Fifth Street. It’s owned by Continental Properties, which in state business records lists Blake Chaussee as its president and Annette Chaussee as secretary. They’re the former mayor’s father and grandmother, according to the lawsuit.

Van Sant & Co. owns the second property, on Eighth Street, and for years operated it as a permanent mobile home park with long-term residents.

But in September 2018, Van Sant & Co. began to convert its long-term mobile home park entirely into a short-term RV park, according to the lawsuit. The company started terminating its leases with mobile home residents — a six-month process — removing mobile homes from the property and cleaning up the area, according to the lawsuit.

“The town’s reaction was swift,” the lawsuit says.

In October 2018, Tyler Chaussee and Cameron Chaussee, as well as a third council member, Roger Lemesany, voted 3-0 to pass new regulations for RV parks. The regulations “dramatically” increased the cost of operating an RV park, according to the lawsuit — but they grandfathered in any RV parks already in operation before Nov. 30, 2018.

“The RV ordinance… was obviously enacted to stifle the competitive impact of the Plaintiff’s planned RV park,” the lawsuit alleges.

Cameron and Tyler Chaussee did not return requests for comment for this story, nor did Jasmin Thorp, who is the current mayor of Calhan, or the town’s attorney, Jefferson Parker. An administrative assistant who answered the phone at town hall said the town had no comment because the lawsuit was being reviewed by legal counsel.

Colorado’s code of ethics for local government officials requires officials to disclose any time they have a personal interest in a decision and recuse themselves from voting on that decision. It also prohibits officials from making decisions that economically harm businesses if the official has “a substantial financial interest in a competing firm or undertaking.”

Although the lawsuit alleges such financial connection, it does not provide proof that the Chaussee cousins earned money or financially benefited from the family’s RV park, and Hall said Wednesday he did not have that proof in hand.

“We’ll have to get that information from discovery,” he said.

Calhan has a seven-member council of trustees — including the mayor — and each trustee has one vote, according to its website. On the day the RV regulations were passed, however, two trustees were absent and another spot was vacant, which left only four trustees. One abstained from the RV vote for reasons not clear in the meeting minutes; he did not return a request for comment seeking clarification.

Lemesany joined the two Chaussee cousins in voting for the regulations, according to the minutes. In a brief interview Wednesday, Lemesany said he was in favor of the regulations because two new RV parks were going up in town at that time.

“Part of the reason was there were two other parks that they were putting in the town, so we wanted regulations for those parks,” he said, adding that the town’s attorney approved the changes.

Lemesany declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit because he said he had just learned about it on Tuesday and didn’t have all the details.

There are two operating RV parks in town now, including the Chaussee family’s property. The second, Jolly RV & Tiny Home Sites, incorporated in October 2018 but had been in business since 2015, its owner, Calvin Jolly, said.

Because the park was up and running before November 2018, it was grandfathered in and does not have to comply with the town’s new regulations, Jolly said. He thinks Van Sant & Co. filed the lawsuit just to avoid the expense of upgrading its site and said they’re trying to circumvent the town’s regulations.

“If you’re going to buy something and you’re going to change the use of it, then you have to follow the regulations,” he said. “This company is just trying to short cut so they don’t have to spend that kind of money.”

Hall said the Van Sant property is still sitting unused.

Source: Read Full Article