A local group has raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest involving Chaffee County Planning Commission Chairman Mike Allen because of his work as a consultant for Nestlé Waters North America.
The group, Unbottle and Protect Chaffee County Water, opposes extending the 1041 permit that allows Nestlé to withdraw groundwater from an aquifer in Chaffee County.
The group’s spokesperson, Jennifer Swacina, said, “It raises a huge red flag to me that the county planning commission chairman is also a paid Nestlé consultant. Planning commissioners’ duties as described on the county website include reviewing land use applications and making recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners.”
As documented in Nestlé’s reports to Chaffee County, Allen consults for Nestlé through Apex Development Services, a Buena Vista company owned by Allen and his wife.
Swacina specifically expressed concern about a Sept. 24, 2019, Planning Commission hearing for the Rio Frio minor subdivision, owned by Steve and Laurie Jacobson.
Swacina noted that Allen presided over the hearing and that the proposed subdivision includes land the Jacobsons had recently acquired through a land swap with Nestlé.
Allen declined to comment, deferring to Assistant County Attorney Daniel Tom, who reviewed Swacina’s concerns and said he did not find a conflict of interest.
Referencing county conflict of interest policies, Tom said the question is “whether Mike has a substantial financial interest in an applicant, a direct competitor or would financially benefit in approving the Rio Frio application.”
Tom said he found that Allen “had no conflict of interest and did not have a substantial financial interest in the Rio Frio application” and, therefore, would not financially benefit from the approval.
The Jacobsons are not affiliated with Nestlé, Tom said, and “Mike does not have a financial relationship with the owners of the Rio Frio property.”
The Chaffee County Commissioners approved the land swap as a boundary line adjustment April 16, 2019.
Based on her efforts to learn more about the issue from the county, Swacina said, “No one is being forthcoming about whether Nestlé profited from the boundary line adjustment. The land was not technically Nestlé’s anymore when, just months later, Allen voted to approve a subdivision on it because Allen and Nestlé know how to play this game.”
Larry Lawrence, natural resource manager for Nestlé’s Western Region, told Heart of the Rockies Radio, “We did not receive any compensation, nor did we profit from this land swap. (Nestlé) actually paid all due diligence fees for both parties.”
Lawrence said the boundary line adjustment gave Nestlé “one contiguous piece of land and was conducted exclusively to support our desire to apply for a conservation easement and further protect our spring site.”
Swacina said she finds the timing of the land swap suspicious. “Nestlé made a deal involving the prime river-frontage property just before starting talks to put the remaining land into a conservation easement with Parks and Wildlife. Nestle promised a conservation land easement ten years ago.”
Lawrence said that Nestlé had discussed the conservation easement with multiple organizations before deciding that Colorado Parks and Wildlife would be the best fit.
CPW Area Wildlife Manager Jim Aragon said he doesn’t remember exactly how long Nestlé has been in discussion with CPW about the conservation easement, but he estimated it has been two-and-a-half years.
The real estate action proposal “has been in the works” for more than a year, he added. “It’s not a quick process.”
Swacina speculated that Allen’s position as Planning Commission chair has provided Nestlé with influence with the county and admitted she does not how much money Nestlé has paid Allen’s company for consulting services. “But I read in the 2009 annual report that Nestlé spent more than $312,000 that year on local consulting, which included Apex Development Services.”
Lawrence pointed to the county’s requirement that Nestlé provide “extensive monitoring information and data collection” during and since the 2009 permit application.
“During the permit application process,” he said, “this necessitated not only paying our own consultants, but also paying for additional local consultants hired by the county to review all that data as part of our application process.”
Lawrence said Nestlé continues to fund a budget for the county to hire consultants to review and comment on the information and scientific analysis included in the Nestlé annual reports.
“These consultants retained by the county help to ensure that the county and its citizens have the transparency and data they need to ensure that the permit has been fully vetted and meets all the requirements set forth by the county and the state,” Lawrence said.
The 2009 County Commissioners approved the original 1041 permit, and the current commissioners will decide whether or not to extend the permit for 10 years at a public hearing scheduled for 1 p.m. Oct. 20 in Buena Vista.
In 2009, the Planning Commission approved a special land-use permit, or SLUP, for Nestlé, and county records show that Allen represented Nestlé during those hearings. However, Allen did not begin serving on the Planning Commission until 2011.
Since approval of the Nestlé SLUP in 2009, the county has discontinued its special land-use permitting requirements.