Fiester Preserve dispute continues at Board of County Commissioners’ meeting

Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier, standing, addresses the audience present to provide public comment at the Board of County Commissioners' regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 28.
Deepan Dutta /

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the size of the Fiester Preserve parcel as well as the number of people who attended the county commissioner meeting.

While a legal dispute to condemn a conservation easement on about 6 acres of open space makes its way to court, the political battle to conserve the Fiester Preserve continues to be waged in public. Residents and friends of the Bill’s Ranch neighborhood in Frisco made a show of force at the Board of County Commissioners’ regular meeting this past week on Tuesday, Jan. 28. 

The group gathered to convince the commissioners that there was enough local opposition to their planned development of Fiester that the board should change their mind and abandon the effort. The commissioners still seem undeterred in their effort to develop the plot to build much-needed senior and workforce housing.

About 70 people packed the commissioners’ meeting chambers at the Old Courthouse in Breckenridge, with some forced to stand for lack of chairs in the gilded historic room. While Fiester wasn’t on the agenda, about a dozen county residents and sympathizers stepped up to the podium during the public comment period to signal their opposition to the process.

Among those speaking on Tuesday were Ben and Karen Little, the leaders of the neighborhood association’s effort against the condemnation ; Andy Searls, president of senior housing non-profit Staying in Summit; Dave Bittner, former president of the Colorado Divide Land Trust (which has merged with Colorado Open Lands, owner of the easement); and Jeni Friedrich, a board member for the Summit Association of Realtors.

Ben and Karen Little sidestepped their own interest in conserving the easement to the broader appeal integrating the legal argument: that condemning the conservation easement would diminish the integrity of conservation easements and open lands generally.

“If you are successful in extinguishing this commitment by Colorado Open Lands to be stewards of land trusts, you will be undermining the very essence of the land trust,” Ben Little said. “What do they have to stand on if they can’t be relied on to steward the land?”

Karen Little then indicated that a petition was being passed around the county to gather proof of opposition to condemning the easement, and pointed to the geographical diversity of the audience as evidence that the issue was of concern countywide, not just of locally.

Searls, used her time at the podium to make clear how she had no sides in the dispute.

“I am in a difficult position, as I have dear friends at Bill’s Ranch,” Searls told the commissioners. “I’m not here as pro or against on the issue. I just want [the commissioners] and Colorado Open Lands to try to find a compromise that could work.”

As they took their turns at the podium, Fiester Preserve allies insisted that they did not oppose the notion that senior and workforce housing was needed in Summit County; just that it shouldn’t be built on this particular parcel, which was meant to be preserved permanently as open space according to the agreement made in 1997 between the board and Colorado Divide Land Trust.

Bittner said that the easement was placed on the land for a reason: that it has conservation value that are prized by the community and state. He maintained that value still existed despite the beetle kill blight, and that new trees replanted there by fourth and fifth graders and others are growing well. He expressed his fears that condemnation would set a harmful precedent for open land conservation.

“I like this property, I like the conservation easement that is on it, like I’ve liked all the conservation easements that we’ve protected over the past few decades,” Bittner said. “To break a conservation easement like this won’t go unnoticed by state and national observers. You are unleashing a tiger here, and I don’t think you’ve given enough thought to the whole process.”

Representing the Summit Association of Realtors, Friedrich read a letter from the trade association that was delivered to the board on Jan. 24. In the letter, the realtors expressed their opposition to the condemnation, citing the precedent that would be set with condemnation of an entire conservation easement for what appears to be the first time in Colorado’s history.

“By confiscating previously protected open space, this creates a new standard of development,” Friedrich read. “Faith in the county’s commitment to protecting and managing open space to preserve and maintain Summit County’s rural mountain character, unique pastoral experience and high quality of life for its residents and visitors can come into question every time the county expresses interest in condemning this open space in the County Commons.”

The commissioners did not provide any response to the comments at the meeting, aside from thanking the group for engaging with the board and being part of the public policy process. Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier spoke to the Summit Daily afterward to express the board’s view on Fiester.

For one thing, the board doesn’t believe the condemnation would set a precedent, citing projects such as the Iron Springs project on Highway 9 where the easement was amended in cooperation with the land trust back in 2016 to allow for new construction. That amendment was made through a trade where a more valuable and pristine piece of open space elsewhere was conserved in exchange.

In the case of Fiester, Stiegelmeier denied it was a condemnation of the entire easement, and that the project would involve landscaping and berming to ensure a sufficient buffer between the County Commons and Bill’s Ranch.

Stiegelmeier said that other suggestions for locations for senior housing, such as along the hillside between St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and the County Commons, would be “terrible” and ill-situated for the kind of facilities seniors needed.

She did concede that the conservation easement was meant to be “in perpetuity,” and how trying to develop the land goes against the permanent protection that was originally agreed to back in 1997.

But to that point, Stiegelmeier appealed to pragmatism — that the word “forever” is not always realistic as times and people change. Stiegelmeier pointed out that Summit County was a much, much different place before the Eisenhower Tunnel was built, and how the open areas that used to be here have been developed as the community has grown, in many instances through land swaps with the U.S. Forest Service that allowed for conservation of land elsewhere.

“The bottom line here is that ‘perpetuity’ is not a reasonable concept,” Stiegelmeier said. “We can’t see into the future, and there will be changes as time goes on. Perpetuity is the goal, but it’s not reasonable to think that everything can really be saved in perpetuity, especially if there is a land trade and you get something better to preserve.”

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