Steamboat Springs Ryan Wood, of Sweetwood Ranch, spoke passionately Tuesday about his vision for translating the business plan of a Napa Valley winery onto his Elk River beef operation. But at the end of the afternoon, the Routt County Board of Commissioners couldn’t see a way to make his plans fit county regulations.
Ultimately, the commissioners voted unanimously to table indefinitely Wood’s request for a special-use permit to operate a guest ranch that would host special events.
“You have a great vision. There’s no doubt about that,” Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush told Wood. “The devil is in the details. And right now, we have regulations,” and what Wood wants to do may not fit within them. “If we table this, then we can discuss it further and work out the details.
“I feel badly that this got tabled and tabled again. We also need to be talking about how we can change some of those regulations.”
Wood told the commissioners he wanted to create a guest ranch based on the model of a California winery with its own vineyard as well as a bed and breakfast and a commercial kitchen that turns out gourmet dinners served on the premises.
“I don’t want to be a traditional dude ranch where we give traditional trail rides and slap a big 20-ounce steak on someone’s plate and sing over a campfire,” Wood said. “This is bigger than that. I’m in the beef business. I’m trying to tell a story. There is a revolution coming in connecting people with their food. In Napa Valley (California), people visit vineyards and see how wine is made, and they have a chance to have a dinner and taste the wines, and they’re branded by that experience, and they go home, and they want to order a case of that wine.
“What I’m proposing is no different than that. This is an opportunity to host people to experience our product and be branded by that. It’s marketing. And it’s in the dictionary definition of agriculture. To me agriculture is a cycle, and I want to complete the cycle. It’s what I’m passionate about.”
Wood’s proposal had been tabled by the Routt County Planning Commission on Feb. 17, but he won its members over and obtained a unanimous recommendation of approval April 7. But after a public hearing that lasted more than three hours Tuesday, Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak bluntly told Wood that his plans did not fit the definition of a guest ranch in the county zoning regulations.
“I have one huge problem,” Stahoviak said. “It’s an application for a guest ranch, and I don’t believe that all of the uses being proposed fit a guest ranch in the subdivision regulations. The definition of a guest ranch is a ranch that boards guests on the ranch and provides recreational opportunities for them on or near the ranch. We have a proposal for providing opportunities for people who are not boarding on the ranch.”
In addition to entertaining as many as 18 overnight guests on the ranch about 5 miles northwest of Steamboat Springs, Wood proposes to host three large events for as many as 200, wedding receptions for example, in his first year and five events in his second year. He also wants to host as many as 10 smaller events of as many as 65 people monthly, including meetings, family gatherings and fundraisers.
More than 55 members of the public turned out Tuesday to tell the commissioners what they think about those plans.
Neighbors speak out
Wood’s neighbors in two subdivisions of 35-acre lots that rim the hills above the bottomland of the ranch on the Elk River have spoken out in opposition, saying the noise of live music and the traffic congestion associated with large parties would disrupt their rural lifestyle.
“This is not generally about ranchers’ rights or individual property rights,” Paul Heimbach said. “We don’t understand how our rights should be subordinated to a commercial development. If the (special-use permit) goes forward and Mr. Wood should sell his property, the rights of the (permit) would go to new owners. We don’t know if the new owners would have the same good neighbor policy as Mr. Wood.”
Other residents of the Elk River Valley have welcomed Wood’s plans.
“I’m hoping you support Ryan Wood’s application today,” rancher Jay Fetcher said. “Several of us in ag are looking at these opportunities, both for (revenue) and sharing our properties. I’m very grateful to Ryan for showing us the way.”
Commissioner Doug Monger said it has been difficult for him to keep track of the evolution of Wood’s plans as it has come through the public process.
“The problem I’ve had with this is lack of predictability,” Monger said. “I see two different permits. We have two different permits with two different sets of impacts being thrown together. I’m still struggling with knowing what really is happening out there.”
Wood shared his own frustration with the commissioners.
“The impact this ranch would have (on the neighbors) has been so blown out of proportion, my blood is boiling, if you can’t tell,” Wood said.
He suggested that he hadn’t been prepared for the commissioners’ position that his proposal didn’t fit county regulations.
“I’ve only had the County Planning Department to be my guide through this process,” Wood said. “I’ve relied on planning (staff) and my attorney. I’ve never done this before. In the regulations there are guest ranches, B&Bs and special events and nothing else. We’re not a balloon fest or a board jam or a Woodstock or any of that.”
Routt County Planning Director Chad Phillips said his staff tried to adapt during the planning process to the increasing prominence of special events in Wood’s plans for his expanding business.
“When this application came in, it was for a guest ranch. Weddings weren’t spelled out. The wording was ‘future experiences’ or something like that,” Phillips said. “When we got more info from the applicant about what these experiences were, it became, ‘How do we make that work?’”
The commissioners have asked Phillips and Wood to continue meeting to determine how his plans can fit into county regulations.
— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com