Bill’s Ranch add their say in ongoing dispute over potential Fiester Preserve condemnation by county
The battle for Fiester Preserve wears on. A local dispute near Frisco over the potential county condemnation of a conservation easement protecting 6.13 acres of open space that separates the Bill’s Ranch neighborhood from the County Commons in Frisco has no apparent end in sight.
The neighborhood association that represents many Bill’s Ranch homeowners are building a case that the easement needs to be protected, citing a potential precedent that could further jeopardize the integrity of protected open spaces across the state and nation.
The basic dispute is over the county’s intention to extinguish a conservation easement the board of county commissioners had granted on its own land. By extinguishing the easement, the county can have the land free of any restrictions and develop it accordingly.
The county has said that it is intended to be developed for assisted living and housing for seniors, as well as workforce housing. Bill’s Ranch neighborhood residents see it as a broken promise by the county to keep the land undeveloped, and perhaps the beginning of a massive development effort destroying open spaces, potentially reaching far beyond the preserve.
At a meeting with the Bill’s Ranch neighborhood association on Thursday, a contingent of Bill’s Ranch homeowners sat down with the Summit Daily to present their case for keeping Fiester Preserve free of development. Among those present were Karen and Bennett Little (in whose self-built log home the meeting was held), Paula Parker, Thea Tupper and Kingsley Poon. All have lived in Bill’s Ranch for at least eight years, with several having been residents for decades.
The neighborhood association has been compiling evidence, data, community reactions and other documentation to put their case to the public. Since the easement is owned by non-profit Colorado Open Lands, and the county owns the land Fiester Preserve is on, the association does not have an automatic legal right to try to defend the preserve. But that isn’t stopping them from trying.
One key point the association wants to get across is that the Fiester Preserve is not an arbitrary piece of open space, nor is it just a natural visual buffer between Bill’s Ranch and the County Commons. The preserve has a bit of a history behind it.
Part sentimental, part legacy and part cultural line in the sand, the preserve was originally protected by an open space designation put on it by the Board of County Commissioners in 1996. That protection was further strengthened by a conservation easement granted to the Continental Divide Land Trust, an open space non-profit that later merged with Colorado Open Lands, who now own the easement.
The preserve was named after Mark and Roberta Fiester, Summit County locals who had made their mark in the community as religious and educational leaders. They were also local authors and historians who cherished the natural beauty and wildlife this small slice of mountain heaven provided.
“The Fiesters were such naturalists,” Karen Little said. “They went to such lengths to preserve birds, plants and everything else that lives in the woods around us. That’s why it was named Fiester Preserve.”
In the 90s, the preserve had a lot more big, live trees, but after the mountain pine beetle epidemic, most of those trees had to be cut down. Instead of letting the area succumb to blight, Bill’s Ranch folks got to work trying to restore life to the space.
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In coordination with the county open space and trails department, the association made significant efforts to clean deadwood and fire hazards from the land over the years, planting many new trees that have grown as high as eight feet tall, as well as maintain trailheads and recreational pathways through the preserve, using it as a natural green belt through which to enter the forest.
The association (which interchangeably calls itself a “task force” protecting the preserve) said that they made such strident efforts to maintain the preserve as it meant something to the Fiesters that a small but precious piece of land would remain green and undeveloped in their honor, and in perpetuity. Both of the Fiesters had passed away by 1997.
In the two words, ‘in perpetuity,’ lies the crux of the association’s legal and moral argument to defend the preserve, as well as the legacy of the Fiesters. The conservation easement held by Colorado Open Lands and bestowed by the county promised that it would be protected in perpetuity — without end.
“When we did this, it was their belief that the land was going to be preserved forever,” Karen Little said. “Just because the trees are gone doesn’t mean that it isn’t valuable anymore.”
Aside from maintaining the legacy and memory of the Fiesters, the association sees “in perpetuity” as the county’s sacrosanct promise to the neighborhood and public that the land would never be touched for development. Association members see those words as part of a contract signed between the county and the people they represent that promised unending protection for the land, as a buffer between encroaching development and the mountain town way of life.
Members fear the county could renege further, going on to develop the entire border of Bill’s Ranch, overtaking parcels south of Fiester Preserve and destroying the remaining forest around the neighborhood.
“These were decisions made by the previous Board of County Commissioners and the people who elected them, and those decisions and the will of those people will be discounted by reversing their decision,” Paula Parker said. “It’s a relatively short amount of time to make that reversal; 1997 wasn’t that long ago. It was meant to be preserved ‘forever,’ but 25 years later, they’re saying, ‘Ah, we were just kidding.’”
“What does perpetuity mean if it doesn’t mean forever?” Bennett Little added.
Association members also pointed to the countywide comprehensive plan, the Ten Mile Basin Master Plan, and other planning documents and policy blueprints upholding conservation and preservation of land as proof the county is acting in a manner inconsistent with its foundational values.
In an interview with the Summit Daily, County Manager Scott Vargo couched the county’s position in pragmatism, and in the current reality the county exists in.
“I think that the bottom line is that circumstances do change, and ‘in perpetuity’ is an awfully long time,” Vargo said. “There are avenues that you can make these sorts of changes, and there’s a reason for that. As situations change, circumstances change, the public purpose or benefit outweighs the original conditions or agreement.”
Vargo added that the current commissioners felt that the easement for Fiester Preserve as originally drawn up was “somewhat questionable” to begin with, and should probably not have been given that protection.
He also pushed back on the assertion that the county is anti-open space, given many land acquisitions and deals the county has struck over the years to preserve open space all across the county.
“If you look at the county’s track record, and look at the infrequency with which this sort of change has occurred, you’ll see that these aren’t things taken lightly by the county commissioners,” Vargo said. “People should not expect that they will have dramatic changes in position all the time. The commitment the commissioners have shown to open space in general has been an incredible dedication toward preservation and acquisition of open space. We hope this one circumstance doesn’t outweigh all of the incredible efforts they made and committed to making going forward.”
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