New subdivision wins county approval

Million-dollar lots would contribute $15,000 to help elk herd

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— An elk herd with its own trust fund? What's next?

The Routt County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to approve a subdivision that could create as many as 63 lots worth $1 million or more each. And a local elk herd could realize a windfall as a result.

Built into the approval is a plan to contribute $15,000 from the proceeds of the sale of 20 of those lots to ensure the Priest Creek elk herd eats well in the future.

"This goes above and beyond anything I've been involved with before," Libbie Miller of the Colorado Division of Wildlife told the commissioners.

Developers Andy Daly and Bill Butler would like to break ground on Alpine Mountain Ranch this summer. They purchased 1,216 acres of land adjoining the southern boundary of the city of Steamboat Springs for $19 million earlier this year.

Under the county's Land Preservation Subdivision ordinance, they are entitled to build 43 lots clustered on the sides of three ridgelines that intersect the sprawling property. However, in a new wrinkle made possible this year, they have a chance to add 20 additional lots. To do so, they must purchase a separate parcel of as many as 600 acres elsewhere in the Yampa Valley. They would be required to separate development rights to that land so that they could be transferred to Alpine Mountain Ranch. And they have five years to pull it off.

Daly promised to donate a portion of the proceeds of each "remainder lot" he can sell into a fund. The fund would be used to improve elk browse along a six-mile stretch of wintering range that stretches south from his property to Lake Catamount.

"I think this is probably the most aggressive and innovative habitat plan ever undertaken in Routt County," Daly said.

Miller told the commissioners that when she first looked over the plans for Alpine Mountain Ranch, she was certain the potential harm to the Priest Creek and Walton Creek elk herds could be mitigated. Encroaching development already has taken away critical winter range on south-facing slopes from elk herds that have traditionally stuck it out close to Steamboat Springs. It isn't so much a question of whether elk would disappear from the nearby mountains, Miller said. Rather, the issue is whether the elk will suffer from a sparse diet and be threatened with starvation during winter.

"Habitat improvement is a really good thing," Miller said.

Consulting biologist Kelly Colfer of Western Bionomics said two-thirds of the $300,000 (if Alpine Mountain Ranch is able to raise that much) would be put to immediate use on habitat improvement. The remaining one-third would be put into a trust, and the interest it generates would be used to fund future habitat improvement projects.

The sagebrush and Gambel oak on which elk browse heavily are overly mature in places on the ranch, Colfer said, and that makes them less nutritious. In the case of the oak shrubs, elk calves can't reach them to feed, he added.

The selective removal of patches of oak, sage and some beetle-killed pine would cause new plants to regenerate shrubs and provide the elk with a better diet.

In addition to the trust fund, Alpine Mountain Ranch will set aside a 500-acre wildlife preserve and place it under a conservation easement. No trails will be built in the wildlife preserve, land use planner Peter Patten said.

Alpine Mountain Ranch already has a special permit to construct community buildings associated with the project -- a barn and owners' lodge, among others. Tuesday's approval for the development is conditional upon the developers' ability to successfully gain approval for a central water treatment and delivery system, as well as a permit to crush gravel on site to build subdivision roads.

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