Blue River officials fast-track hotly contested Ruby Placer property
A dense, residential development on nearly 50 acres of thickly wooded land south of Breckenridge is one tentative step closer to reality.
Blue River officials on Tuesday approved a proposal to rezone the Ruby Placer parcel. The vote allows for nearly triple the number of units advised by Summit County officials and the Joint Upper Blue Master Plan. In response, residents are now scrambling to collect signatures to block the development, which they say doesn’t fit with the character of their community.
The town board of trustees voted 6-1 to approve the rezoning documents through an emergency ordinance, with Trustee Dan Cleary voting against the proposal. By introducing the proposal as an emergency ordinance, the trustees only had to approve a single reading of the rezoning proposal, instead of two readings, which is customary for town councils looking to adopt new rules.
Cleary was the sole dissenting voice when the town passed an equally contested annexation ordinance on March 3. The annexation, also introduced as an emergency ordinance, officially brought the parcel into town limits and set the stage for the rezoning decision this week.
As approved by the town board of trustees, the rezoning ordinance is a slightly revised version of the original planned residential development, or PRD, first brought to the town in March 2014. That proposal was approved in July, only for a district judge to rule it invalid based on an injunction brought against the town by several residents and property owners.
Under the new zoning limits, Ruby Placer now calls for up to 68 units on the 48.2-acre property, split between single-family homes, duplexes, townhomes and small “cabin home” properties. All residential units will be built on about 23.3 acres. The remaining acreage is devoted to roughly 22 acres of open space, along with a community center and potential commercial space.
The property, which was pieced together with three separate parcels ranging from 44 acres to 0.85 acres, butts up against the town to the north and former Skier’s Edge complex to the south. It is thickly wooded, with pockets of open meadow and two residences belonging to the majority property owner, the Schmidt family.
Since June 2014, the Summit County Board of County Commissioners has sent several letters to the town urging officials to abide by the original zoning, which was limited to 23 units. Noah Klug, an attorney with The Klug Law Firm in Breckenridge, says towns and developers in Summit have recently explored ways to sidestep the transfer of development rights program, which protects property values while urging home construction outside of environmentally sensitive areas.
In Summit, this often means trading long-held mining claims like Ruby Placer for parcels closer to areas already slated for development, such as the Peak One neighborhood between Frisco and Breckenridge.
“There is a disturbing trend here,” said Klug, who is not involved with the Ruby Placer parcel. “Development in the unincorporated county is subject to the TDR program. Therefore, in order to avoid complying with that program, developers are increasingly seeking to be annexed into towns that have the ability to provide them with unlimited density without complying with the TDR program.”
The disparity between county recommendations and the developer’s proposal has become a rallying cry for residents of Timber Creek, a subdivision that borders Ruby Placer. Several residents believe building on the property will mar a “high-alpine, pristine wilderness area” — a claim challenged by Danny Teodoru, legal counsel for developers Cabin Properties LLC and Carl A. Schmidt Living Trust.
“This is not wilderness by any stretch of the imagination,” Teodoru said before quoting the Bureau of Land Management’s definition of a wilderness area: “A wilderness area is a region where the land is in a natural state, where impacts from human activities are minimal.”
WILDERNESS OF TERMINOLOGY
Residents at the meeting again butted heads with town officials over verbiage and transparency.
For some residents, the most pressing concern was exactly how the town defines an emergency ordinance. According to town code, an emergency ordinance can be submitted when it is “necessary to the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety.” Since the town was established in 1964, officials have passed roughly 23 motions by emergency ordinance, nearly half of which were approved in the past five years. Those ordinances range from wildfire mitigation to the creation and staffing of a town marshal position.
A 340-page Blue River staff report outlines several reasons Ruby Placer qualifies for emergency status, most notably a tight development timeline. If the annexation and zoning ordinances aren’t approved by early this spring, the developer told the town it wouldn’t begin building on the land until 2017 at the earliest.
For town staff and officials, as well as the developer, the promise of new tax revenue is paramount. In 2014, nearly 64 percent of the town’s $900,000 budget came from property taxes.
The original Ruby Placer impact report says the town will see total annual revenues of $96,929 from development, which includes $16,830 annually from a new 0.25 percent real estate transfer fee alone. Now, along with minor planning revisions, the emergency ordinance contains a 0.5 percent transfer fee, adding an additional $16,830 annually.
“That’s what helps you get your roads plowed, get the policing you want, the town government you want,” Teodoru said. “I think that’s a big part of the whole thing for what we’re trying to do, and if you want a reflection of the town, the town speaks through their elected officials. They’ve made it clear this is something they want for their town.”
Yet residents weren’t satisfied with the town’s vague — and seemingly revenue-based — definition of an emergency.
“If we are going to try pushing this through as an emergency, I still think we deserve an answer as to what is the emergency,” Timber Creek resident Mitch Weiss said. “I think the citizens are entitled to that at the very minimum.”
Weiss and several other residents made nearly identical statements at previous Ruby Placer hearings, but only Teodoru and town attorney John Dunn responded directly to the question. None of the trustees gave an answer during the board discussion.
“The fact is, an emergency ordinance is a term of art,” Teodoru said. “When we request an emergency ordinance, it’s not skirting process, it’s not gall — it’s a matter of course. This board determines what defines an emergency.”
CONFLICTS AND CONFUSION
When presentations and discussions wrapped up, a clear understanding of the ordinance and its many versions was a sticking point.
All told, Ruby Placer has gone through four hearings and five votes over the past year. It has seen revisions before each vote. To further complicate matters, this latest rezoning decision also came after two trustees, Larry Nelson and Rob Theobald, disclosed potential conflicts of interest.
Nelson told the collection of roughly 15 attendees at the meeting that he is a member of the Timber Creek Water District Board. Theobald announced he has worked with the developer in the past and also disclosed his role as town building inspector. Pay for that position is based on permit fees, similar to a commission-based job, according to documents obtained through the Colorado Open Records Act. Both trustees recently filed their positions with the Colorado Secretary of State and went on to vote in favor of the project at the March 17 meeting.
Both trustees recently filed their positions with the Colorado Secretary of State and went on to vote in favor of the project at Tuesday’s meeting. Messages sent to the trustees asking for details on their conflicts were not returned by press time, and neither trustee announced conflicts at previous meetings.
THE REFERENDUM CAVEAT
Before votes were cast, Dunn gave the board yet another curveball: Early on Tuesday, the town received a referendum petition from residents. The referendum is meant to strike down the March 3 ordinance. Since the annexation vote was passed as a regular ordinance — and the emergency rezoning ordinance hinges on the approval of annexation — residents have 30 days after it was published on March 13, or until April 11, to collect at least 48 signatures from voters registered in the town. The signatures must then be verified by the state, which means second-home owners aren’t eligible for the referendum.
If completed in time, the referendum will nullify the annexation ordinance and likely bring Ruby Placer to a public vote — something part-time resident Michele Tonti has wanted from the start.
“I don’t have a problem with not getting my way,” Tonti said. “I have a problem with not being heard. Our community representatives seem to be representing their own agenda. They’re not doing a very good job of developing consensus and going through the process to actually listen.”
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