County presents its case for developing Fiester Preserve as eminent domain looms
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify language regarding eminent domain and land interests.
FRISCO — Amid a dispute over a potential eminent domain action to develop open space next to the Bill’s Ranch neighborhood in Frisco, Summit County government is responding to several items of concerns raised by the Bill’s Ranch Neighborhood Association as the process moves forward.
On Tuesday, the Summit Board of County Commissioners directed county staff to find a way to extinguish a conservation easement on the 6.13 acre “Fiester Preserve” open space that separates the County Commons from Bill’s Ranch. The parcel is being contemplated to be developed into senior and workforce housing along with an assisted living facility. The easement is held by open space conservation nonprofit Colorado Open Lands, who have declined to negotiate the terms of the easement and vowed to fight to protect it.
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The move angered some Bill’s Ranch residents who felt the county is making a land grab, destroying open space for more development and changing the character of a unique neighborhood that is already seeing radical change from population growth in the county. If the land gets developed, there will no longer be any open space buffer between Bill’s Ranch and the busy County Commons.
County Manager Scott Vargo has been tapped by the commissioners to take the lead on development of the plot of land by any means necessary. That can include eminent domain, the legal process by which courts allow the condemnation of private land interests by the state.
Considered a relatively drastic action, eminent domain receives high scrutiny by courts. When government wins an eminent domain action, it is because the court agrees it is justified because the land has a public use that far outweighs the principle of private property rights. The court then orders the property owner to sell the property interest to the government at a fair price.
This is not the first time the county has tried to develop the Fiester Preserve property, which has been under an open space easement since the ’90s. But each time, the Bill’s Ranch Neighborhood Association has managed to fight those attempts back. This time is different, however, as the county has declared its intent to use the most potent — and politically risky — tool available to develop the property.
Vargo said the county is making earnest efforts to maintain conversation with the Bill’s Ranch association and Colorado Open Lands.
The Bill’s Ranch folks have accused Vargo and the county government of not being transparent with their latest attempt to obtain the land interest. Vargo insisted that is not the case. He said the county met with the Bill’s Ranch Neighborhood Association several months ago. In that meeting, he said, the county made clear its activities in the neighborhood, including the purchase of two private properties and the intention to develop Fiester Preserve, which is owned by Summit County.
“We have stayed in touch with them as the process has developed, had conversations with the Continental Divide Land Trust (the organization that originally owned the conservation easement before a merger), Colorado Open Lands (who now own the conservation easement), and the Staying in Summit folks (a nonprofit advocating for seniors who want to stay in Summit County),” Vargo said.
The sides have been exchanging letters, he said, and the county was also made aware of neighborhood association’s opposition to the easement removal. In explaining why the consent agenda item, including the staff report directing development of the plot, was added relatively late and seemingly without the best notice to the public, Vargo said there was nothing nefarious about it.
He said the county was late to writing letters to the organizations explaining the intention to remove the easement, and that work was not done until shortly before the meeting was held. Vargo said there was nothing surprising about the action itself.
“Nothing is really new within that information that we hadn’t shared with Bill’s Ranch previously,” Vargo said. “We had talked to them a week and a half ago about the plan, and that information was attached. The suggestion that we’re not being transparent, and not involving them in the discussion, we don’t think that’s a fair characterization.”
In addressing another one of the neighborhood association’s claims that there are other pieces of land available that the county can develop instead, Vargo again issued a denial.
“The seniors task force has gone through any number of pieces of property trying to identify one suitable for senior housing,” Vargo said. “The county doesn’t have land it controls outside of larger, more rural open space properties or backcountry claims. The idea there’s some other developable piece of property, I’m not sure what that property is.”
Two other pieces of land that the county owns is a portion of the eastern parking lot in front of St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and a hillside property near the County Commons. Vargo said the parking lot was unavailable for development as it had been identified as the site for the second medical office building as part of future development of the medical complex, and thus not viable.
As far as the hillside property between the County Commons building and the hospital, known as county parcels eight and nine, those pieces of property were considered but ultimately rejected as they were needed for future county administrative needs, including emergency services. The land is also in an industrial campus near a firefighter training center and sand storage unit, with vehicles making noise all day and night, making it particularly unsuitable for senior housing.
Vargo went on to list the only other significant county building properties, including the old courthouse and justice center complex in Breckenridge. The courthouse location, he said, had no more space, and the justice center with its jail, emergency vehicles and inmate transfers did not seem at all appropriate for seniors and assisted living, either.
That leaves Fiester Preserve, a location that is directly across the street from the senior center with its programming and community meeting spaces, in close proximity to the hospital on the hill and has easy access to Colorado Highway 9 to the north. Vargo previewed the county’s case for eminent domain, in that the county believes the land’s public use is far more valuable than any conservation or environmental value.
“It is not highly valued from a conservation perspective, based on its location, and based on the original rationale for it, which was to provide some amount of buffering between the commons and the neighborhood,” Vargo said. “We’ve been very comfortable with the location from the beginning. When the land is developed, there will be appropriate land buffering between it and the neighborhood, including berms if necessary.”
As far as fears of setting a dangerous legal precedent that would allow for unfettered development and cheap purchase of open spaces, Vargo said he did not see how it could be, positing that condemnation of conservation easements was an approach that has been used before and will be used in the future. He said it takes a lot to get those condemnations approved by courts, with high standards not allowing for poor compensation and willy-nilly development.
“There’s a certain bar that must be met in order for that condemnation to be approved,” Vargo said. “We believe that we will be able to reach that bar.”
Reactions and perspectives from the Bill’s Ranch Neighborhood Association and Colorado Open Lands will be featured in their own articles as part of the Summit Daily News’ ongoing coverage into the Fiester Preserve dispute.
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