May S-S Ranch turns historical corner

New owner paid $5 million for 385-acre ranch on Elk River

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A view of the productive hay meadows on the May S-S Ranch with the lower Elk River beyond.

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The May S-S Ranch sold in late September for $5 million. The pastoral character of the land is protected by a conservation easement held by the Yampa Valley Land Trust.

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Courtesy Photo

The Elk River flows between the May S-S Ranch and Routt County Road 129 between Cullen's Corner and Mad Creek Village.

Tom Ross

One of the most visible family ranches in Routt County, the May S-S Ranch, recently sold for $5 million.

Motorists headed for Steamboat Lake State Park glimpse the traditional cattle ranch through the trees lining the Elk River as they travel along Routt County Road 129 west of Steamboat Springs. The entire 385-acre ranch is under an agricultural conservation easement.

Realtors involved in the sale declined to name the purchaser. Records on file with Routt County show the buyer is a Delaware limited liability company. Ryan Wood is the principal in RSW Holdings.

"He's been here this week, and he's excited to begin ranching," said Christy Belton, the Realtor who brought the buyer to the sale. Belton is with Steamboat Real Estate.

The listing Realtor was Wendy Fisher of Anchor Realty, Ltd.

"I appreciate the family's faith in me," Fisher said. "It's a huge honor to have worked with them."

The seller of the ranch was May S-S Ranch, representing the May family. The ranch was operated for 50 years by Cynthia May and her late husband, Bill, and before that by Bill's parents, Fred and Anna May, and family.

David May, one of Bill and Cynthia's sons, has been managing the ranch for the family since their parents moved away.

Cynthia May, who lives in Fruita, said it was difficult to let go of the family ranch, but she also seemed reconciled to moving on.

"It was sad, so sad, but it had to be," she said.

David May said prior to his father's death in April, Bill came to terms with the need to sell the ranch.

"Dad knew it was a regrettable necessity," he said.

Bill May was a well-known personality in Northwest Colorado who made the ranch even more visible to the public through his cowboy poetry and singing, and through historical essays and newspaper columns.

Fisher said the $5 million sale is noteworthy in part because of the conservation easement.

It marked the second multi-million dollar sale of a conserved ranch in the Elk River Valley in 18 months.

"It's significant that we're seeing these ranches turn over. It's a sign of the times our little valley is going through," Fisher said.

Coincidentally, Belton and her husband lease the former 1,590-acre Warren Ranch farther up Elk River Road. Much of the property is under a conservation easement. Arie Hoogendoorn purchased it for $8 million in 2006.

The conservation easement means the hay meadows in the river bottom will not be developed. Susan Dorsey Otis, executive director of the Yampa Valley Land Trust, confirmed that the terms of the easement allow the new owner to build a residence on the ridge above the meadows.

Fisher and Belton agree that the conservation easement also means it's a tricky process to arrive at a selling price.

"It's not a free-market property," Fisher said. "You take the market price, and you have to deduct from that."

Belton said the May S-S Ranch has special qualities that allowed the price to rise as high as it did.

"You have phenomenal ski area views, and you have river frontage just five miles from town," Belton said. "You can't find that anywhere else. Those were the driving forces (in the sale price).

Belton said she has two views on ranches with conservation easements.

"I definitely am a fan of conservation easements," Belton said. "They have the potential to make it affordable for people to continue with agriculture. They are a very beneficial and useful tool for families who want to continue the ag lifestyle.

"From a real estate standpoint, conservation easements narrow down your pool of buyers."

Belton said she has three other ranches under easements listed for sale. She doesn't want to mislead those property owners about the challenges involved in selling their property.

Cynthia May, who received a homemaker award from Colorado CattleWomen during her career, said the hard times on the ranch included the spring when the rampaging Elk River washed out one end of their private bridge. However, spring also brought her favorite season.

"I loved seeing the flowers blooming, and I liked calving season - it was the most rewarding time," she said.

- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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