Cluster subdivision rules under review

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— Several developers with successful cluster subdivision projects say they'd go through the county process again, but planners who created the regulations say the land preservation subdivision option is not being used the way it was intended.

Land preservation subdivision, or LPS, was developed to encourage landowners, particularly ranchers, not to sell off their land in 35-acre chunks.

Once homesites are clustered in one section of the property, LPS regulations call for a developer to create a large contiguous remainder parcel. The remainder parcel is supposed to protect wetlands and wildlife habitat and ensure agriculture remains a viable land use.

Pleasant Valley rancher Bill Gay said LPS has done a reasonable job of meeting those goals. Gay, a native of Routt County, runs the 2,000-acre Green Creek Ranch, which is bordered by developments such as Catamount Lake and the Sundance Ridge Preserve LPS.

"I don't believe LPS has had a negative impact on agriculture, but I'm not sure it's positive either. I guess it's neutral," Gay said. "I think the intent was great. I'm not sure we accomplished everything we hoped to, but it's better than ski hills and road-to-road concrete and pavement."

The county created LPS rules for farmers and ranchers, but the majority of the people taking advantage of LPS incentives such as bonus density lots are developers. For every 100 contiguous acres set aside in a remainder parcel, the developer gets one bonus lot for development.

Peter Patten of Patten Associates Inc. coordinated Catamount Ranch's LPS application in 1998. He praised the LPS process as a creative land-use tool.

"It's good for the land, it's good for the county and it's good for developers. I don't want to see it compromised," he said.

A proposed change in the LPS regulations with which Patten doesn't agree would exclude commercial remainder parcels from being counted in a project's density bonus.

Catamount Ranch included a 90-acre private golf course in its 700-acre, 25-lot development. The county frowns on the so-called "double-dipping," where the developer receives density bonus points for preserving the land, while at the same time making money off a commercial use of the property.

As the county grows and needs more recreational opportunities, Patten said it should consider allowing recreational activities that make good sense on remainder parcels.

If LPS regulations become too cumbersome, Patten said, developers will be tempted to go to 35-acre developments. The county has little control over 35-acre subdivisions. It has a say in road approvals but not the location of the homesites. The county also loses the ability to protect the entire acreage of farms and ranches.

The Routt County Planning Commission thoroughly reviewed the LPS regulations at public meetings over the last several months. The recommendations it forwarded to the Board of County Commissioners will be reviewed for adoption on June 6.

Planning commissioners wrestled with how to craft regulations that won't discourage LPS development.

In January, Arieh Szigeti tried unsuccessfully to develop 526 acres near Spring Creek Canyon as an LPS project, but received a recommendation for denial from then Planning Director Ellen Hid the project had problems with wildlife, visual impacts, infrastructure and geologic hazards.

Planning Commission Chairman Troy Brookshire said the LPS regulations should give options to landowners.

"I want to ensure this doesn't become such an animal that it prevents people from using it so they use 35-acre development instead," Brookshire said.

For example, instead of telling developers they "must avoid" dividing irrigated lands with roads or fences, the Planning Commission recommended the regulations say "to the extent practicable," development should avoid those things.

Another word used frequently in the revised rules is "minimize." Instead of being ordered to "reduce the cumulative impact of development on adjacent rural properties," developers are urged to minimize the impact.

The LPS regulations to be reviewed by the Board of County Commissioners also state that a remainder parcel used for a commercial recreational activity cannot be used to obtain a density bonus.

That means previously approved LPS projects with golf courses, such as Catamount, would not be given bonus lots for setting aside a remainder parcel if it was reviewed today.

Hid the LPS regulations need to be flexible.

"If we'd had this requirement in, we wouldn't have gotten rid of the ski area at Catamount in exchange for a golf course," Hid of the proposed limitation on commercial remainder parcels.

The Planning Commission also recommended that the county should limit the number of remainder parcels and limit the density on those parcels. For example, the Priest Creek Ranch LPS, across U.S. 40 from Haymaker Golf Course, has five remainder parcels ranging from three to 145 acres.

Chris Wittemeyer, the developer of The Meadows at Stagecoach, used land preservation subdivision last year to cluster 12 homesites on 350 acres, creating a 224-acre remainder parcel used for sheep grazing.

Wittemeyer said choosing LPS is more expensive in the planning process and a complex procedure for someone who is not a developer. Wittemeyer said he considered 35-acre subdivision but believed in the LPS concept.

"LPS is more of a challenge, but the benefit is you work to preserve the big spaces," he said.

If he had to do it again, Wittemeyer said he would still choose LPS. The only thing he might change is increasing the emphasis on preserving open space.

"I think it's a good concept," he said. "But open space preservation should be considered a valuable goal as much as agriculture. Looking at Routt County, there are going to be areas that don't fit as productive agricultural ground where LPS may still have value by preserving a hillside or a forest."

Bill Gay also is concerned that fencing arrangements are spelled out in a development agreement when a LPS project is approved. The development agreement can be one form of insurance for a rancher concerned about changing land uses. Gay said if it's not included in the development agreement, it probably won't get done.

That agreement is a way for county officials to address concerns they hear from the community, and Gay urged residents to get involved when those decisions are being made.

"The community has to hold the county's feet to the fire to ensure that the community's interests are protected for the best interest of everyone," Gay said.

The alternative may be 35-acre parcels that interrupt the look of the Yampa Valley.

"You're not going to like what you get from 35-acre parcels," Patten said. "But if this thing (LPS) gets too tough it may be the subdivision of choice in Routt County."

To reach Michelle Bales call 871-4208 or e-mail mbales@amigo.net

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