Bill’s Ranch residents fear development beyond Fiester Preserve as Summit County buys multiple lots in neighborhood
FRISCO — An ongoing dispute over the fate of Fiester Preserve, a 6.13-acre piece of open space bordering the Bill’s Ranch neighborhood near Frisco, has the Summit Board of County Commissioners embroiled in a fight with conservation nonprofit Colorado Open Lands to condemn a conservation easement on the land to build senior housing.
The dispute also has riled up nearby residents, who see Fiester as the last barrier protecting their eclectic mountain neighborhood from encroaching development. Members of the Bill’s Ranch Neighborhood Association have started to wage an organized political campaign against the condemnation with support from nearby neighborhoods and some in the broader community in an effort to change the board’s course of action.
One of the messaging points deployed by the neighborhood to garner local support posits that the Fiester condemnation is part of the county’s broader ambition to buy up land around County Commons and convert it into high-density housing, like condominiums.
An example they cite is the county’s purchase of several lots, including 188 Miner’s Creek Road near the Fiester Preserve along with a vacant lot at 31 Bobwhite Way. That has left one occupied property, 7 Bobwhite Way, standing by its lonesome on the corner of Bill’s Ranch with a solitary one-floor cabin, hemmed out of the contiguous neighborhood with county development looming on all sides.
At the moment, 7 Bobwhite Way stands between Bill’s Ranch and potential county development as a sort of “nail house,” a term borrowed from a Chinese neologism describing homes standing in the way of development because their owners refuse to sell.
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Losing a local way of life
Karen Little, one of the Bill’s Ranch homeowners fighting development, sees the county’s local land purchases as an existential threat to the rustic charm of the neighborhood that was built in the 1960s.
“Our task force is concerned about changing the nature of the neighborhood,” Little said. “It’s not because we oppose workforce housing. The ranch is very eclectic, and it is diminished if you build something that is completely out of character with the rest of the neighborhood.”
County Manager Scott Vargo, who is overseeing the condemnation of Fiester Preserve on behalf of the commissioners, said the county acted fairly as a market participant in purchasing these lots in the Bill’s Ranch neighborhood and would continue to do so if properties that meet county needs come up for sale.
In the case of 188 Miner’s Creek Road, the board purchased the property Aug. 16, 2019, for $749,900. That’s far more than the assessor’s estimated property value of $403,822 in 2019 and $576,291 in 2018.
Like many other properties in Summit County, Vargo said, the assessor’s valuation of the property and market value of the property are not necessarily going to be the same, as the assessor’s value is behind in time from market value. He said the county bought the property at a cost close to the asking price from the owner, if not lower, and considered it a good deal for the county.
Vargo said these particular purchases were not an attempt to take over or otherwise disturb the nature of the Bill’s Ranch neighborhood. Rather, it was the county’s attempt to deal with the very real realities of a lack of housing for people who want to live where they work.
“The county doesn’t have an extensive property inventory, and we’re always on the lookout for properties that may be suitable,” Vargo said. “It’s not a concerted effort to exclusively focus on Bill’s Ranch. These properties were on the open market, and we worked on those purchases the same we do others.”
1996: Summit County amends its planned unit development to designate a 6.13-acre area as a conservation easement and trailhead, which provides access to the White River National Forest.
1997: Property dedicated for Continental Divide Land Trust preservation.
1998: Conservation easement officially placed on Fiester Preserve, easement owned by Continental Divide Land Trust.
2004: “History of the Land: The Fiester Preserve,” by Maryann Gaug is published by the Continental Divide Land Trust with a grant from The Summit Foundation.
2013: Bill’s Ranch neighborhood association, Summit County Open Space and volunteers plant trees to restore area after beetle kill. Entryway sign designating the open space is restored.
Aug. 19, 2016: Summit County buys 31 Bobwhite Way for $335,000.
Aug. 16, 2019: Summit County buys 188 Miner’s Creek Road for $749,900.
Oct. 23, 2019: Continental Divide Land Trust merges with Colorado Open Lands, which acquires all landholdings and liabilities.
December 2019: Summit Board of County Commissioners approves resolution directing staff to find a way to extinguish conservation easement, develop land for senior assisted living, workforce housing.
The holdouts on the corner
Cindy Freese, who shares the home at 7 Bobwhite Way with its recorded owner Fred Kuehl, said they do not intend to put their home on the open market.
“It’s not for sale, and we’re not leaving the county,” Freese said, adding that she had been in the county for over 30 years. She said Kuehl had been living at the house for over 20 years and in the county for over 40 years, and she said neither of them had any desire to go anywhere else. They are middle-class people, Freese said, who were themselves part of the workforce.
“We’ve been upgrading the property, put a new driveway in last year and doing other upgrades to the house,” Freese said. “We’ve been stressed watching what’s been going on, and we’ve been asking what the plans are but not getting any definite answers.”
Freese said she feared the county would try to rezone the properties from allowing single-family homes to high-density housing to allow for condo developments.
Vargo denied the county is looking to do that. He said the county is looking to keep the single-family designation while dividing the parcels into smaller lots that could allow for tiny homes, making more use of the space and allowing more workers to live there.
Freese said she also fears the prospect of eminent domain being used by the county to take their property, if not under this board, then in the future. The writing seems to have been on the wall for the past few years as she and Kuehl have watched their neighbors get bought out.
“We’re on this little corner and now surrounded by county purchases,” Freese said. “Our concern is that if they want this corner property, where are we going to be able to own another third of an acre in Summit County in a place like this?”
As far as the looming legal battle over Fiester Preserve, Vargo said the county has not yet begun condemnation proceedings and that no timeline has been set for that to proceed.
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