Summit Daily News
Summit County, CO Colorado
When Megan Cornwell stood next to the guesthouse at Lost Creek Ranch and saw the jagged peaks of the Gore Range outlined against the blue Colorado sky last summer, she knew she’d found her dream wedding location.
“She’s a mountain girl,” her mother, Jan, said recently. “She looked at those mountains and said: ‘I’ve got to have my mountains.'”
Having discovered the perfect place for her walk down the aisle, Megan had no problem putting down a deposit to reserve the venue for a busy summer weekend in what seemed to be the distant future: July 5, 2008.
What Megan and Jan didn’t realize at the time was that, even as they were spending the next 13 months designing a once-in-a-lifetime celebration, events were unfolding in the quiet neighborhood off Ute Pass Road ” concerning issues of property rights, land use, growth and general neighborliness ” that would end up throwing a wrench into their best-laid plans.
Megan had her first inkling of a possible problem more than a year after she made her reservation, when she and fiance Jeremy O’Grady flew out from New York in June to give the place one final walk-through.
During the visit, Mark Harrison, the guest-house property manager, told them he’d been notified by the county he might have to stop booking weddings in the future.
“But it won’t affect you,” she remembers him saying. “So don’t worry about it.”
The young couple took Harrison at his word and continued to look forward to staying at the house on the Fourth of July weekend and getting married that Saturday.
Plans for tent rental, flowers, catering, and music ” not to mention travel and lodging for most of their 130 guests ” were finalized.
Then ” 15 days before the scheduled ceremony ” Megan received an e-mail from Harrison.
“It said: ‘Issues have arisen,'” she recalled. “My heart dropped.”
She and Jeremy could still have their wedding there, Harrison told her when she phoned him, but they would have to modify their plans.
County officials said they couldn’t have a tent, or any alcohol, or any amplified music or outside singing, among other requirements.
Her western-themed celebration would have to be altered beyond recognition.
Megan couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“I thought we’d planned far enough in advance,” she said.
After the initial shock, Megan’s emotions overwhelmed her, and Jeremy phoned her parents ” Frisco residents Jan and Steve ” to give them the bad news.
Going into a self-described “crisis mode,” the mother of the bride frantically started a search for an alternative location.
Guests were going to be arriving from all over the country in less than two weeks, and canceling the wedding was not an option.
She and Steve called “easily 40 or 50” potential venues, only to find them booked solid for the holiday weekend.
As important as her wedding was to Megan Cornwell and her family, it was only one element in a debate that had begun months before about land use and county zoning enforcement.
At issue were the conflicting rights of property owners.
Lost Creek Ranch, the wedding venue Megan had found advertised online, was built in 1997 as a residence by locals Scott and Barbara Casebolt.
Like much of the Lower Blue valley, the neighborhood around it had at one time been a single large ranch.
Since being sub-divided in the 1990s, 10 homes have been erected on 20- to 40-acre lots along the one-lane improved dirt road that winds through the former ranch.
When the Casebolts moved out of state several years ago, they began to use the 6,000-square foot home as a short-term rental, with Harrison as their property manager.
Staging weddings on the property was not anyone’s intention at first, Harrison said recently.
“People just kept asking about it,” he said.
With its breathtaking views and informal atmosphere, the guesthouse is a unique alternative to the expensive and conventional Summit County resorts, he added.
In response to requests, Harrison said he started renting the house out for wedding parties two summers ago.
By last summer, the place had hosted more than a dozen ceremonies, and Harrison had launched a website advertising the house as available for weddings with “up to 200 guests.”
And as Harrison’s business grew, so did its impact on his neighbors, and some of them were not at all happy about it.
Summit County residents for more than 30 years, Kathy and Ernie Conter moved out to the Lower Blue from Summit Cove a decade ago. Standing on their front deck on a weekday summer morning, one is struck by the quiet of the valley and the visual magnificence of their view of the Gore Range.
“It’s like heaven on earth here,” Kathy observed.
In general, Kathy considers herself a fairly tolerant neighbor, but her house perches on a hill across the road from the wedding ranch and nothing can be done to keep party noise from carrying.
Late last summer, she couldn’t stand it any longer.
“One Friday, they started at four in the afternoon and partied until 4 a.m.,” she said. “Then they did it again on Saturday. Finally, when it started up again on Sunday, I called the sheriff.”
Because the wedding venue is also an overnight short-term rental, celebrations often lasted for several days, Conter added.
More than a hundred guests might arrive for the actual ceremony, but even after they had departed, sometimes dozens of high-spirited revelers would remain for days.
“It became pretty much a week-long thing,” she said.
Conter was not the only neighbor with complaints about the steady partying.
“Last summer, I was asleep in my bedroom when they came into my house at two or three in the morning,” Sharyl Hendrickson recalled.
The mother of two small children, Sharyl at first assumed the footsteps she heard in her bedroom were those of her husband, Jim, coming home from work.
When she awakened to see a blue flashlight beam criss-crossing her darkened bedroom, she called out her husband’s name, only to hear the sound of someone running down the stairs. Realizing the footsteps couldn’t have belonged to Jim, she looked out the window and saw a man with a suitcase standing in her yard.
The man and his female friend who’d entered Sharyl’s bedroom uninvited turned out to be wedding guests looking for the Lost Creek Ranch.
“They were not apologetic at all,” Sharyl said, when she told the couple they’d gone into the wrong house.
The Hendricksons reported the incident to the sheriff’s office, and, as the complaints piled up, the county planning department took notice of the situation.
Unfortunately for Harrison, all the subdivided parcels from the old ranch are zoned “A-1″ ” essentially agricultural, with residential use allowed.
According to Summit County code, commercial operations, including hosting weddings, are expressly prohibited in A-1 zones unless a conditional-use permit has been issued by the planning commission.
After receiving a notice of a zoning violation from the county in March, Harrison and the guesthouse’s owners formally requested a permit from the Lower Blue Planning Commission last month.
But with neighbors testifying both for and against the permit, the commission denied their application.
“We pretty much felt that the people out there were entitled to the quiet enjoyment of their property,” Lower Blue Planning Commission Chairman Ken Schaefer said. “It wasn’t a bad idea ” it just wasn’t working. The applicant was willing to make concessions, but the damage had been done.”
At least one neighbor disagreed with the commission’s decision.
“In this economic time, they should be able to do what they want on their property,” said Gayle Knorr, whose house stands nearest to the wedding site. “I’m kind of disgusted that I live in such an intolerant neighborhood. The main reason we selected this property here was its lack of strict restrictions.”
Once the permit had been denied, Harrison was faced with the unpleasant task of informing more than a dozen brides that their wedding venue was no longer available.
Some parties were able to relocate, but others went on as scheduled, much to the surprise of the neighbors.
Told by county officials that it could take as long as 90 days for the weddings to be stopped, even after the permit denial, Conter made a call to Summit County Commissioner Tom Long.
“I wanted to know what (the county) was going to do,” she said. As she and several of her neighbors saw it, 90 days would cover the entire summer, and they could expect the weddings to continue as before.
“That set me off,” she admitted.
When it became obvious that weddings were continuing, the county stepped in.
“Nobody wants to ruin anybody’s wedding,” Long said. “It just didn’t seem to quit even after they were denied at the zoning hearing.”
To salvage the plans of those who were unable to relocate their weddings, county officials tried to hammer out a compromise acceptable to neighbors and brides for the remainder of the summer.
“We realized there were two sets of injured parties ” the neighbors and these third-party wedding parties who made reservations, often a year or two before, without any knowledge of any zoning regulations.,” assistant county attorney Frank Celico said. “We tried from the get-go to balance the hardships.”
Although several scheduled wedding parties agreed to the county’s eventual compromise stipulations ” limited cars, no amplified music, no alcohol, many others relocated.
Megan and Jeremy opted to move their ceremony to the banks of the Blue River behind the Agape Outpost near Farmer’s Korner.
“It will not be what she was planning on and dreaming about for 14 months,” Jan said after the decision was made. “What ruined it for us was a few bad eggs (from other wedding parties), but I think the homeowners were somewhat at fault.”
Harrison has already refunded Megan’s entire deposit, and despite all her recent emotional upheaval, the bride is remarkably forgiving.
“I don’t have any malice toward him,” she said. “Everybody in Summit County has been so gracious and helpful. That really was a ray of sunshine.”
Harriet Hamilton can be reached at (970) 688-4651, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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