Bill’s Ranch residents, Summit County government face showdown over plan to develop open space for senior living
FRISCO — A tiny piece of mostly bare open space next to the Bill’s Ranch neighborhood near Frisco has become a stage for Summit County’s most contentious social issues to play out.
The brewing political and legal war has implications far beyond the borders of a 6-acre plot of open space called Fiester Preserve. Summit County government, Bill’s Ranch residents and a land conservation nonprofit are involved in the land-use conflict.
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The county is pushing to condemn Fiester Preserve to build senior housing and assisted living facilities over the objections of neighborhood homeowners and in opposition to a nonprofit, Colorado Open Lands, the mission of which is to protect land from development.
In one corner is the Summit Board of County of Commissioners. On Tuesday, Dec. 17, the county made a late addition to the consent agenda for its regular meeting. The item involved commissioner approval of a county housing department report that recommended that the board and county staff “take all actions necessary” to purchase and extinguish an existing open space conservation easement on Fiester Preserve, a roughly triangle-shaped 6.13 acre parcel of land bordered by Bill’s Ranch to the west, County Commons to the south and east, and Colorado Highway 9 to the north.
Even though the county already owns the land, county commissioners placed a conservation easement on the parcel in 1998 to preserve it as open space. At the time, the narrow strip of land had stands of tall pine trees thick enough to create a visual barrier between the neighborhood and County Commons, and its conservation seemed to be set in stone.
Bill’s Ranch residents, who call themselves “Ranchers,” gave the parcel the honorific name of Fiester Preserve and saw it as a permanent barrier between the neighborhood and County Commons development, which had gobbled up the surrounding forest over the past few decades.
But within years, the pine beetle epidemic that ravaged the West and killed millions of trees across Colorado left its mark on the preserve. Nearly all the trees were killed and removed as it created a wildfire hazard and aesthetic blight. The once prominent conservation value of the property evaporated, and the green wall it created between the neighborhood and the outside world disappeared.
When the deadwood was removed, Fiester Preserve devolved to a bare patch of ground with the odd pine tree, underbrush and little else. For nearly a decade, the county has been eyeing the land for possible senior housing, assisted living care and workforce housing.
The land — which is right across the street from the Summit County Community and Senior Center and just down the hill from St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and the adjoining medical office complex — seemed to be perfect for the purpose.
In justifying the attempted land acquisition, the staff report cited the well-established realities of Summit County: a critical shortage of affordable housing, astronomically high cost of living, rapidly aging resident population and complete lack of any facilities allowing for seniors to age in place.
The report also cited the obliteration of trees on the preserve and the overwhelming need for senior housing as justification for the county to use any means at its disposal — including condemnation through eminent domain — to get rid of the conservation easement the county commissioners themselves had created.
Protecting Colorado’s open space
The only thing standing in the county’s way is Colorado Open Lands, a nonprofit dedicated to acquiring and preserving Colorado’s forest, open space and wilderness for preservation in perpetuity. Earlier this year, Colorado Open Lands merged with sister organization Colorado Divide Land Trust, which originally had held the easement, and acquired all of its holdings and liabilities, including Fiester Preserve.
Tony Caligiuri, president and CEO of Colorado Open Lands, was in attendance Thursday morning at a meeting of the Bill’s Ranch Neighborhood Association, the nonprofit dedicated to preserving the neighborhood and protecting residents’ rights. Caligiuri explained to the association that Colorado Open Lands’ interest in Fiester Preserve is to protect the conservation easement by all legal means possible.
Aside from Colorado Open Lands’ general mission of preserving open space, Caligiuri said it was important to the group to defend the conservation easement and any other easement under threat of being snuffed out. To avoid an acrimonious legal battle, he said the county had offered to negotiate a land swap to purchase the easement, offsetting the loss of open space.
But the organization’s lawyers axed that idea, saying any attempt to modify or extinguish the conservation easement could create a dangerous precedent in case law that could allow municipalities, utilities or any other powerful entity across the state to easily seize land meant to be protected by conservation easements.
Voluntarily giving up the parcel also could put the nonprofit’s existence into question, as the IRS could attack Colorado Open Lands’ nonprofit status given that it was operating in a manner antithetical to its purpose of protecting land from development. For this reason, Caligiuri said he was unaware of any instance where a nonprofit such as his had voluntarily given up a conservation easement.
That means that Colorado Open Lands will not give up the easement, negotiate a swap or attempt to modify any aspect of the easement. That also means the only legal way for the county to get the land would be through a condemnation process, with the government asking a judge to remove the easement on the basis that the public’s interest in developing the land far outweighs any conservation value the land has.
Caligiuri was careful to note that, although the residents and Colorado Open Lands share an interest in keeping the land free of development, his organization is not allowed to work with anybody to protect its own easement. The sole interest his organization has in the dispute is to protect the easement as much as it can while protecting its own long-term interests.
Fighting for a way of life
Aside from losing the buffer and potential loss of property value that could be caused if the preserve was developed, Bill’s Ranch residents were very concerned about what losing the preserve would mean for the rest of the neighborhood and the few open spaces left in it, as development continues to creep into the forests they feel makes the place so special.
It presents a threat to the very way of life in Bill’s Ranch, where neighbors have known each other for decades in a veritable snow globe of rustic Colorado living with hand-painted signs on posts around the neighborhood pointing to individual homes.
Bill’s Ranch very well might be one of the last true mountain neighborhoods left in Summit, and throughout the meeting, the residents made clear their intention to fight the loss of Fiester Preserve by any means necessary. They already are angry about what they see as an opaque process by which the county has gone about trying to develop the land, accusing county government of obfuscating its dealings, avoiding public engagement and not giving the neighborhood notice of its intentions.
Seeing the writing on the wall, residents have floated a mobilization effort that would involve any legal, political and public relations tools they have handy. They mused efforts to hire lawyers, start a political campaign and even seek help from higher-ups, including Gov. Jared Polis, to exert pressure on county government and the courts to prevent development.
Summit County Manager Scott Vargo denied Bill’s Ranch residents’ accusations, saying the county has been as transparent as is required when it comes to land purchases and that it is doing everything it legally can to acquire the land for a critical county need, including eminent domain, despite the political risks and community division it poses.
Vargo said he understood how the residents felt and the priorities of Colorado Open Lands but cited the overwhelming public need for senior living facilities. He also said the county had made numerous efforts to find another location but failed. The Fiester Preserve and its prime location for senior care was the only feasible plot, he said, and the county is steadfastly moving forward in trying to develop it.
The neighborhood association said it completely understands the need for senior housing and supports the county’s efforts to create it. However, residents strongly dispute the county’s assertion that Fiester Preserve is the only land the county can use, insisting there is plenty of land, even near the hospital, that the county could develop. They also want the community to know that they’re not just another case of “not in my backyard” opposition to development and that their opposition is rooted in the foundational values of preserving Colorado’s remaining open space.
“We are very disappointed the (board of commissioners) is pursuing extinguishment of this conservation easement and that it didn’t notify our board or the public of its intent or its plan to vote on the matter,” Bill’s Ranch Neighborhood Association officials said in a statement. “We are not opposed to workforce or senior housing. This is not a NIMBY issue. This decision puts all conservation easements — here in Summit County, throughout Colorado and across the nation — under threat.”
As far as the seniors who have been lobbying for housing and assisted living for years, they seem to be stuck quite uncomfortably in the middle between the Bill’s Ranch residents and the county, just like Fiester Preserve.
It is a position that Andy Searls, president of senior advocacy nonprofit Staying in Summit, does not want to be in. In fact, Searls said she and other seniors are not lobbying for developing the preserve and would be happy with any piece of land the county can acquire, as long as the housing and facilities come to fruition.
Searls said she is very worried that this conflict between the county, Bill’s Ranch and Colorado Open Lands will pit neighbors against one another, with everyone trying to do the right thing while defending their own interests. Basically, she doesn’t want to be anywhere near a word that leaves a bad taste in most mountain local’s mouths: politics.
“It comes to a point where it becomes so politically charged, and it is very hard for me as I have very dear friends in the Bill’s Ranch neighborhood,” Searls said. “If it becomes a political football, and I hate to see it divide people in the county, I think we all feel we all want the best for Summit County.”
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