Lot size could slow development

35-acre plots interfere with West Steamboat plans

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— The largest landholders in the West Steamboat area have platted their land into 35-acre lots, which could put major kinks in the community's plans to develop Steamboat's next high-density neighborhoods.

Last week, Steve Brown and Mary Brown recorded the 538-acre subdivision at the Routt County Courthouse.

The land sits adjacent to the city limits and makes up almost half of 1,200 acres targeted under the West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan.

Approved in 1999, the plan was seen as a solution to the city's growth and affordable housing problems because it designated an area for high-density developments.

Under the plan, the land was to house 2,400 units; a third of those units would be required to be affordable housing.

"It makes it more difficult to implement (the plan) if you are trying to push for heavy density and now have 35-acre lots," City Councilman Paul Strong said.

Under Colorado state law, agriculturally-zoned land such as the Browns' can be subdivided into 35-acre lots without going through the county's planning and approval process.

Turning the property into 35-acre parcels "has always been one of the options," City Manager Paul Hughes.

Mary Brown said recording the plat would ensure that one day they could subdivide the property into 35-acre parcels. But the former City Council President said developing the land into something other than 35-acre parcels is still very much an option.

"It is important to preserve that entitlement (of the 35-acre lots). We don't know specifically what other options we might have in the future," she said.

Four years, 100 public meetings and 17 draft documents went into the west of Steamboat plan. The community reiterated that desire earlier this year during the Steamboat Springs Area Community Update process.

It was believed that developers would have an incentive to follow the west of Steamboat plan.

By meeting the one-third affordable housing requirement, developments could have a much higher density than what was allowed under the one unit per 35 acres allowed by state law. Developments would also be annexed into the city and served with the city's water and sewer system.

Since it was approved three years ago, not a single development in the west of Steamboat plan's area has come through the city planning department. Landowners, developers, elected officials and city staff give different reasons for why the land has remained undeveloped: A special general improvement tax makes it too expensive to create affordable housing; the plan has demanding and conflicting requirements; it is cheaper to develop within the city limits.

Mary Brown said they have looked into development plans that would have followed the city's guidelines.

After figuring in the one-third affordable housing requirement and the general improvement tax for city infrastructure, combined with city's desire to develop the property east to west, those developers were not willing to go through with the project. Brown also said developers were not willing to tie up land or money in a planning process that could take multiple years.

"The west of Steamboat plan doesn't appear to be economically viable at this time, at least that has been our impression," Brown said.

County Commissioner Doug Monger said Wednesday the west of Steamboat plan can still work even if the 35-acre lots are sold.

He said it just means there would be more owners involved.

The Browns' property could be developed in waves, he said.

The first wave would be the sale of the 35-acre lots; the second would be the developments that meet the west of Steamboat plan's guidelines.

The Browns are not the only landowners who fall under the plan, Monger said.

Their decision could mean changing the direction of the plan to develop west to east, starting at Steamboat II and Sliver Spur, instead of east to west, he said.

"This is not a life or death situation. We will get by," Monger said.

Former County Commissioner Ben Beall is not so optimistic.

Beall, who worked on the plan during his eight years as commissioner, said the sale of 35-acre lots could destroy the entire concept of the plan.

"We had a vision. Whoever implements that vision, it is going to be done differently than the colors we have on the map, but at least they would have some form that is acceptable that kind of meets the goals," Beall said. "With what the Browns are doing, there is no way we are going to meet those goals."

Beall said the situation could have been prevented if the county had pursued zoning all of its agricultural land into 160-acre parcels. Although state law allows the subdivision of 35-acre lots, a few Colorado counties have zoned their agricultural land into 160-acre parcels. In those counties, people wanting to build on parcels smaller than 160 acres must go through the county planning process, Beall said.

Routt County Planning Director Caryn Fox said the county had looked into 160-acre zoning, but found landowners who supported it also wanted the county to give up all regulation of 160-acre-plus parcels.

Hughes said without the Browns' parcel, the city could have to start looking elsewhere for an affordable housing solution.

The Browns' 538 acres were a key component in providing a place to build 800 affordable-housing units.

The night the west of Steamboat plan was adopted in 1999, Mary Brown had words of caution:

"If two or three offers go away, the guy who wants to buy a (35-acre parcel) looks pretty good three or four years from now," she said that night. "Within two years, if nothing's been developed, we need to do a pretty immediate reevaluation of what's in this plan."

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