Developers of luxury Keystone development under fire for cutting down old-growth trees
Under the snow, Lot 1 at Dercum Dash in Keystone doesn’t look like much more than a big, gaping hole in the forest. And that’s the problem, according to neighbors.
Developers of Dercum’s Dash, a luxury home development nestled in the White River National Forest, have been accused of illegally clear-cutting a swathe of 100-year-old lodgepole pine trees. The cutting drew the ire of neighbors who see it as another example of mountain developers blatantly breaking promises and encroaching into forestland for financial gain.
“They took a home away from the animals near that wetland and put a hole in the forest,” said Patrick Perini, a neighboring homeowner across the wetlands who raised the issue with the county and the Summit Daily. “It shows such disregard for the community.”
The county has been investigating the matter since September, but has already determined that the developer-owners, Gary Miller and David Bernstein, did not have permission to cut down the entire stand of old-growth trees, as they never presented a management plan to the county nor sought approval as required by the Planned Unit Development designation issued back in 2014.
“Those were 60- to 80- to 100-year-old lodgepole pine trees,” said Summit County planning director Don Reimer. “They certainly can’t be replaced, and the developers did not have permission to cut them all down.”
An eagle’s-eye view of the development from Google Maps or other mapping software still shows large, thick trees standing relatively unbroken on the northwest corner of the development, between the wetlands and the setbacks allocated for private homes. Those trees have been completely cleared, punching a wide hole in the forest down to the riparian bed below.
“The essence of the violation is that they did the cutting without permission, in an area beyond the building disturbance envelope,” Reimer said, noting that the development designation only allowed tree cutting on the lots if they were specifically for fire mitigation or forest management purposes. “They can cut for things like fire mitigation, but they are still required to come up with a forest management plan before the trees were cut down.”
Reimer said the developers had told him that they had a permit from the U.S. Forest Service for a contractor to cut down a certain number of trees next to the wetlands, asserting that they were sick and dying anyway and posed a hazard to the property.
Dillon district ranger Bill Jackson said that the developers indeed had been given a permit to cut down 13 trees on forest service land because they were considered hazardous to the property, but that did not permit cutting all the trees on the private lot. That, Reimer said, was in the county’s purview, and should not have been cleared without county approval.
Reimer said the county has notified the developers of the violation and is currently working with them to find a possible remedy.
“If people are responsive and we can work to find resolution, then we won’t usually try to pursue it and take them to court,” Reimer said. “It’s just because it’s not the most efficient use of everybody’s time, especially if we can find a remedy.”
While attempts at directly contacting developers Gary Miller and David Bernstein were unsuccessful on Thursday, Miller’s wife, Kikken Miller, answered a call from the Summit Daily.
“The issue has been resolved with county, it was dealt with a long time ago,” Kikken Miller said. “That was all permitted when it was cut.”
Reimer denied that claim, saying that there has been no resolution yet, and that the county has only spoken to the developers and their lawyers, not to Kikken Miller. He also said that the county will be proposing that the developer redo the landscaping or replant the trees as part of any final agreement.
“As part of the resolution, our proposal to them is that they need to come up with a landscaping plan that helps restore the lot, and that it needs to be done at or before lot development,” Reimer said. “Until there is a resolution, we won’t issue any new permits for the impacted lots. We’re still in negotiations and there is no timetable for a final resolution.”
That lack of permitting will put a dent in Dercum Dash’s building prospects until a resolution is found. Only a few of the lots have been built on already, with the rest waiting to be built into multi-million dollar properties.
While the need for housing in Summit County is well-known, the Dercum Dash development isn’t workforce housing. At least two homes in the development, which is in a prime location a stone’s throw from Keystone Resort’s River Run Gondola, have sold for over $3 million. The land itself was part of a land swap between Gary Miller and the U.S. Forest Service back in 2013. In exchange for the top-tier 20 acres near Keystone, the forest service obtained and preserved 40 acres of land located in the ghost town of Chihuaha.
At the time, assurances were given by home builder Crestwood Homes that the Dercum’s Dash development would maintain the natural aesthetic of the property.
“The spectacular architecture of these homes will be unique to Keystone,” Bob Jeske, Crestwood Homes’ vice president of sales and marketing, said in a 2013 press release. “These homes will be carefully placed within the forest to take advantage of the topography, to be organic and to meet the goal of creating a destination community unequaled in Summit County.”
Neighboring property owners are pleased that the county is showing action on the cutting, but want a better resolution than mere landscaping before they will be appeased.
“It’s atrocious, because they know they can get away with it,” Perini said. “They know the county has limited resources and don’t want to go to court with a developer with big pockets. But the county needs to put up a fight, and know that the citizens support it. We want the county to fight.”
While there is some obvious self-interest from the neighbors across the wetlands — the clear-cutting got rid of their forest view and will have them staring at expensive houses if or when they’re built — neighbors Judy and John McKinney said it goes beyond just a view and gets to the core of what makes Summit special — the landscape.
That is why, Judy McKinney said, they fear the developers will get away with a meager penalty or fine, which would be more than worth the value of the land they have cleared and can build on. They reject any assertion that the cleared trees were sick, or that the trees were cut down accidentally, and accused the developers of intentionally clearing them to develop the lots beyond the natural setbacks.
“It was obvious they cut it down to expand their little lot,” McKinney said. “It’s shocking to me, as a tree-lover. It was a total disregard for nature.”
As far as what they feel an ideal resolution is, the neighbors agree: they want the trees restored.
“I hope it’s not just landscaping, but real forest and real trees,” McKinney said. “I don’t want to see landscape, I want to see wild.”
Perini wants to go one further.
“I want the trees to have to be replanted and for the developers to have to sit and watch them grow 35 or 40 feet before they can build again,” Perini said. “No amount of money can replace those trees. They need to pay the price of the time.”
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