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‘No’ to Square Top Ranch concept

The Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners gave a “thumbs down” to a conceptual plan for proposed development in the Upper Blanco during a March 30 review, sending the developers of the high-end ranch project back to the drawing board.

Close to 100 people listened to a presentation of a conceptual plan for the proposed Square Top Ranch development at the Extension Building Wednesday night before the BoCC voted against the proposal.

The concept review, according to county staff, is intended to save developers and the county time and money by allowing developers to vet their proposals for a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” before delving into the more-detailed planning process.

The review is no assurance, however, that the BoCC will approve the project at the end of the planning process if a concept is given a “thumbs up”.

“This is a thousand-foot view from the air, looking down on things,” said Commissioner Clifford Lucero at the beginning of the meeting.

In introducing the proposed project, Archuleta County Planning Manager Cindy Schultz said the development had not been through any preliminary review by the planning department.

Schultz said the Ranch is proposed to include 1,733 acres, with 225 homesites constructed in two phases, which would be single family homes, timeshares or a combination of both.

Schultz also said the project proposed an equestrian center and a final total of just over one-quarter developed area, with just under three-quarters of the Ranch preserved as open space.

Schultz said the applicant and developers asked for 25-year vested rights to complete both phases of the development but, should the BoCC give a “thumbs up” to the project concept, the vested rights and development as a whole would be subject to an agreement to define timelines, milestones, lot sizes, zoning and more — a document that would be more difficult to amend than a typical subdivision agreement because of the project’s departure from zoning and land regulations, as well as from the county’s Future Land Use Map.

The Square Top Ranch property is currently zoned Agricultural-Ranching, meaning the property can only be subdivided into parcels of 35 acres or more without being reclassified as a Planned Unit Development, as sought by the developers. Forty-nine 35-acre parcels could be created on the site.

Nancy Lauro, of Russell Planning and Engineering in Durango, is working with the Squaretop Ranch limited partnership and expounded on the density, noting that homesites would be clustered in wooded areas, creating 73-percent open space outside of lot lines and hiding most of the development from Lower Blanco Road.

“Everyone knows that this is a large ranch,” Lauro said, adding. “One of the last large ranches in this area.”

Lauro said clustering the homesites in wooded areas would protect the historic character of the ranch and allow the most valuable open space to remain so, though the means by which that would be done has not been decided.

“The county provides incentives such as density bonuses and lot sizes to promote such clustering,” Lauro said. She referred to the fact such incentives are available only if a Planned Unit Development is approved. Without a PUD, the county’s land use and development codes don’t provide the incentives to make ranchers or developers want to protect the area by avoiding 35-acre developments.

Before turning the presentation over to landscape architect Bart Cook, Lauro said the applicant had done environmental studies and will avoid damaging wetlands on the property, have tested and determined there is enough water to serve the development, and added that the developers will carry out a traffic study and have pledged to make any improvements deemed necessary by the study.

Continuing the presentation, Cook said his primary responsibility with the project is to not allow the ranch to be hurt in order to maintain the ranch’s desirability, but that the project must be financially viable and that 35-acre sites were not financially viable.

“We’re in a position to move forward on this property with some development in the not-too-distant future,” Cook said after detailing that no debt existed on the ranch and 15-20 investors were committed to the project.

“We intend on preserving all of the buildings that are historical and worthy of being preserved,” Cook said.

Cook said the homes on the site would be cottages, which he defined as expensive, small homes in the 2,500-3,500 square foot range and said a small phase would be built to start the project and, as the units sold, more would be built. The equestrian center would also be built initially.

Before turning the presentation over to financial consultant Gabe Preston, Cook said he believes the current economy is good for the project, with lower construction costs and available labor.

Preston, a partner at Durango’s RPI Consulting, said the development would target the country’s top 1 percent of wealth and is a second-home development. He indicated residents would have an average annual income of $1.5 million and would help create 34 permanent jobs in the community, as well as spend about $1.7 million per year total in the community.

“People are not necessarily interested in developments that have tons and tons of amenities,” Preston said, adding that second home owners are fewer in number than in earlier times, with those remaining tending toward developments that preserve the beauty and are more scaled back.

Preston said construction would likely occur over a 20-year period, with 170 jobs created and a $20 million annual input to the community, adding that ongoing management of the Ranch and its homes would create 50 permanent jobs.

Preston further stated that the developers were committed to paying voluntary impact fees of $2,400 per unit.

Commissioner Michael Whiting said he liked the open space protection of the ranch, but struggled with not being able to ask detailed questions before deferring to the other commissioners. The concept review stage of a project does not allow detailed questions concerning a proposal.

Commissioner John Ranson clarified that a traffic study would be completed, while Lucero said he hoped affordable housing would be addressed (affordable housing was mentioned as a form of community involvement by the developers).

With the floor opened to public comment, many of the first comments aimed to clarify the purpose of the hearing before project proponents took the floor.

Proponents from the building and real estate industries voiced that the county needed to welcome development to help the ailing construction industry and local economy, while praising the open space proposed in the development.

Bob Moomaw stated he was in favor of some aspects of the development, but not others — explaining that he liked the clustered development, but said he felt they’d “pushed the envelope a little as far as density” and that traffic concerned him. He added that the county should look into aligning development incentives with current regulatory documents.

Opponents for the project were more numerous than proponents, with 34 neighbors represented by Durango attorney Jeff Robbins, who spoke first.

Robbins raised questions about the project not meeting requirements of the land use code, zoning and a future land use map and said the project proposes a density inconsistent with the county’s ruling documents and incentives laid out in the comprehensive plan for conservation planned unit developments, which would allow approximately 87 units on the Ranch.

Robbins also noted the development would not be compatible with the rest of the Upper Blanco area.

Robbins further stated that only the Regester family had been notified via letter about the development, urging the commissioners to advise the developers to work with the neighbors, adjust the density and rework the proposal, suggestions that were met with applause by the audience.

Property owners in the area and other county residents further stated concern over roads and traffic, density, a lack of amenities to draw the nation’s top 1 percent of wealth holders, and of a development being allowed to supercede county planning documents that stakeholders helped create because real estate prices (when the land was purchased) prevent the developers from making a profit under the current regulations.

“I just cant believe something to this extreme,” Tiger Regester, who operates a neighboring ranch said about the proposed density. “This is an extreme and it won’t work. I don’t think it’s good and I oppose it.”

Following public discussion, Whiting moved that the BoCC not endorse the concept, and the motion received a second from Ranson.

In stating reasons for not endorsing the proposition, Ranson said the economy needs the help, but added he hoped the developers would work more with the neighbors on the issues of density and roads.

“This is getting to be a thoughtful project for the area,” Whiting said before encouraging the developers to meet with neighbors and stating his view on the status of the property as a working ranch.

“Don’t think for one minute if this gets developed it won’t be a ranch anymore,” Whiting said. “It stopped being a ranch when it was sold. You can’t buy a ranch for ten or twelve million (dollars).”

Lucero stated that density was a “huge concern” for him, as was work with the neighbors and stakeholders. “They’re involved and it’s near and dear to their heart, so it’s important,” Lucero said.

With that, the commissioners voted unanimously to not endorse the project.

In a separate discussion at a Tuesday morning work session with the commissioners, county staff said the “thumbs down” was the first of its kind from the BoCC, raising questions about how many concept reviews the developers are entitled to before the reviews are considered part of the planning process. No answer was determined at the meeting.

Although their concept was not endorsed, the developers for the project have the option to proceed with their current plan to the planning process, or to propose a modified project.

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