Blue River Horse Center withdraws proposal to use Summit County fairgrounds

Director cites county pushback, community concerns as reason for decision

Lisa and Craig Robelen stand Jan. 21 inside the barn at the Equine Center on Tiger Road in Breckenridge. Craig Robelen is a board member of the Blue River Horse Center, a local nonprofit organization that is looking for a new home.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

In a move that surprised the county’s elected officials, the Blue River Horse Center on Tuesday withdrew its proposal to use the county fairgrounds as a home for its nonprofit horse rehabilitation and educational programming.

Blue River Horse Center Executive Director and Founder John Longhill shared that change of heart with county commissioners and officials at Tuesday’s county work session. Longhill said the analysis of the proposal conducted by several county departments — analysis that did not support the organization’s wishes to use a 5- to 6-acre parcel for programming — influenced him to withdraw the request.

Longhill said he and the organization wanted to house their May-October operations at the fairgrounds because they felt it was a “win-win” scenario for the county and nonprofit. Once county officials — namely from the animal control and 4-H youth development departments — made clear they felt that wasn’t the case, Longhill moved on from the idea.

“If anyone has any ideas regarding a suitable location, we would love to continue,” Longhill said.

Longhill’s decision came at the end of a detailed 50-minute conversation in which Assistant County Manager Bentley Henderson laid out the county’s analysis of Longhill’s proposal to use a small portion of a larger parcel of about 162 acres owned by Denver Water at the base of the Dillon Dam.

The Blue River Horse Center is looking for a new home after previously hosting its programming for 12 years at a private ranch north of Silverthorne. Longhill said last summer’s programming traffic became too much for the ranch owners, who felt it was infringing on the tenants’ personal use of the property.

Henderson said county staff looked at the organization’s proposal by putting operational challenges and problems in perspective. Henderson said the biggest challenge is a lack of sanitation and water services at the site, which were significant concerns to Denver Water. Henderson added that the county’s 4-H department desire to maintain its ability to use the fairgrounds site “on a kind of one-off basis.”

As for animal control, county Animal Control Director Lesley Hall said the proposal presented issues with emergency management and the county’s ability to have the site available on a moment’s notice, including for the evacuation of livestock. Henderson said the county’s land-use staff also identified requisite land-use permitting processes if the parcel was to be considered for the proposed use.

Henderson said county Open Space & Trails Director Brian Lorch was unable to find any kind of “reasonable accommodation” to accommodate the nonprofit organization elsewhere.

Henderson also said the county commissioners would be putting themselves “in a very challenging position” in terms of precedent if it were to dedicate the public parcel to one use.

Hall said the county fairgrounds is the only facility where the county can house displaced livestock. She also cautioned against the combining of livestock from disparate locations, which she said is a potential health risk for the animals. Hall added that the lack of running water on-site would require 100-200 gallons of water hauled in each day and that the manure and urine buildup could be an environmental hazard for the nearby Blue River.

Longhill said the organization did consider all of the concerns county staff addressed and that he felt they could be resolved. His detailed explanations of those resolutions included a redesign of the parcel and facility that he said would accommodate various concerns, namely for 4-H and animal control.

Longhill said he respects Hall and other county staff who opposed the proposal. He added that when he read 15 letters in opposition to the proposal, 13 were from friends of his, though he said many of the claims made in the letters were “misinformation.”

There also were dozens of letters from the community in support of the center’s proposal, including from the Friends of the Lower Blue River, Summit Advocates and Building Hope Summit County.

“As friends, we do disagree on some things, especially about the care of animals — especially horses,” Longhill said. “After 32 years of rescuing over 300 animals — including 100 horses — I can tell you that they do require a lot of educated care to thrive and be healthy. And there is as many opinions as how to do that successfully as there are people. Fortunately, I am blessed to never have an animal become sick or die in my care due to abuse and neglect, and we always put the safety and well-being of our animals and our people in the forefront.”

Summit County commissioners Elisabeth Lawrence, Tamara Pogue and Josh Blanchard all thanked Longhill for his proposal, approach to the process and service to the community. Lawrence said what the county learned about the fairgrounds through the process would help improve the parcel in the future.

“Truthfully, the rodeo fairgrounds is not an ideal location for us,” Longhill said.

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