Court documents from the city of Steamboat Springs’ ongoing litigation with Humble Ventures LLC illuminate the legal maneuverings and missteps that turned a conservation effort into court proceedings costing the city more than $104,000 and counting.
Steamboat Springs A trail at the heart of a collaborative, multiyear effort to conserve land and increase recreational access for the public now is lined with “No Trespassing” signs and barbed-wire fencing.
It might well be the most expensive hiking trail in Routt County.
About 11 years after Ed and Cheri Trousil closed on their purchase of Humble Ranch, in May 1999, the public trail along Agate Creek south of Steamboat Springs is a scenic, little-used reminder of how a conservation effort that began with all sides stating the best intentions descended into legal battles, property disputes and appeals through four years, two courts and teams of lawyers.
The litigation has cost the city of Steamboat Springs more than $100,000. Coordinating the Humble Ranch purchase brought together numerous public entities and private landowners.
“This was one of our big projects back in the day,” Kevin Bennett, who led four Steamboat Springs City Councils in the ’90s, said earlier this year. “It’s a shame to see it unwind like this.”
Bennett said in March that the Yampa River System Legacy Project gave the Trousils $950,000, among other considerations, to help them close on the purchase.
The city has a pending petition filed with the Colorado Supreme Court, asking it to review a ruling in favor of Humble Ranch made in Routt County District Court and upheld by the Colorado Court of Appeals.
“Two courts have ruled in favor of Humble … (and) nothing, frankly, has changed,” attorney Colin Deihl, of Faegre & Benson in Denver, said Wednesday. “I don’t see why the Supreme Court would be any different.”
Deihl is representing Humble Ventures, which is the legal entity for Humble Ranch. Ed Trousil declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing legal proceedings.
The state court of appeals on March 11 upheld a July 2007 trial court decision that the city of Steamboat Springs does not have the right to build a public cabin on private property at Humble Ranch, or by extension, to open trails off the Agate Creek trail to the public. Opening the trails is contingent on construction of a public cabin.
The closed trails provide access to the south side of Emerald Mountain and the Cow Creek area, via the Humble Ranch property off Routt County Road 14.
Trousil has said the trails’ closure is to protect wildlife habitat — the state Division of Wildlife closes the Emerald Mountain State Wildlife Area, at the top of the Agate Creek Trail, from Dec. 1 to June 30, because of elk concerns — and to prevent impacts on the Humble Ranch Education & Therapy Center.
Focus on the future
Many people involved in the purchase of the Humble Ranch land said building a community cabin in its trail system and opening those trails to the public were key components of correlated efforts a decade ago by the Yampa River System Legacy Project and the Emerald Mountain Partnership.
Trousil reflected that desire in a March 1999 letter sent to homeowners in nearby Dakota Ridge. The letter is part of court documents released to the city and Humble Ventures during the litigation.
In it, Trousil asked for support of his plan for Humble Ranch before he closed on the property. A component of the Humble Ranch plan was “to open the ranch for a public trail system, including the future construction of a wilderness cabin in the uplands,” Trousil wrote.
The word “future” is indicative of an argument that has become a crux of the litigation.
Courts have ruled that Humble Ranch easement contracts and real estate documents don’t specify a time for when the cabin must be built or the trails opened. The courts ruled that when the cabin is built, and by whom, is at Humble Venture’s discretion.
“The meaning of the easement was before both the district court and the court of appeals,” Deihl said. “The courts have already ruled on the meaning of the easement document.”
The Agate Creek trail, accessed by a mile walk up the private Elk Lane, is the sole public access remaining from efforts heralded a decade ago as a crowning jewel of the Legacy Project efforts.
Sue Swain walked the Agate Creek Trail on Wednesday morning with two family dogs, Nika and Berkeley. She and her husband, Ted, bought one of the 16 lots in the initial offering for Agate Creek Preserve land preservation subdivision, which, Trousil wrote in the March 1999 letter, was needed to “properly fund and operate” the Humble Ranch project.
The Agate Creek subdivision was part of Trousil’s initial land purchase, and he sold the lots to make money for the ranch.
The Swains moved into their home there about six years ago.
Sue Swain said she hikes the Agate Creek area nearly every day, year-round. Usually, dogs are her only company.
“I hardly see anybody,” she said. “Maybe once or twice a month.”
She said the “private property” and “no trespassing” signage on ancillary trails has increased in the past couple of years, as has the fencing.
“Ed has completely fenced the back part of his property now,” she said.
Colorado Division of Wildlife area wildlife manager Jim Haskins said the DOW is simply a spectator to the litigation. He said Trousil is within his rights to hang signs and erect fencing on his property. And the fencing likely is not meant to enforce property lines, he said.
“No. 1, obviously, the Trousils own the land. I’m assuming the fence is for livestock grazing purposes,” Haskins said. “From our standpoint, we’re probably glad to see him have a fence so we don’t have cattle trespass on our property.
“It’s kind of an unfortunate thing that it’s gotten to this point,” Haskins added about the ongoing litigation with the city.
Swain called the litigation and questions about public access “disappointing” but said, “We’re lucky to live where we do. It’s a wonderful neighborhood. Just having all this open space around us — that’s why we bought the property.”