Steamboat Springs Neighbors of Ryan Wood’s Sweetwood Ranch who protested plans for guest ranch operations on the property, along the lower Elk River, said last week they had very different expectations for the ranch’s use based on the land’s original conservation easement.
The ranch was under a permanent conservation easement that was held by the Yampa Valley Land Trust until Wood purchased the ranch as RSW Holdings for $5 million in September 2007. He promptly had the easement transferred to another entity, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust. The new easement holder has told the county it doesn’t have a problem with Wood’s plans.
And county officials pointed out last week that conditions of the prevailing conservation easement held by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust could not be a factor in their deliberations about Wood’s request for a special use permit.
The permit would allow him to house and feed overnight guests, host receptions and offer fishing, horseback riding and hiking on the ranch. Wood also seeks to host special events with as many as 200 people.
The Routt County Planning Commission voted unanimously Thursday night to table Wood’s application for a special use permit until April 7, when a new hearing will be held. The commissioners asked for more details about how Wood and his staff would manage the large special events.
Planning commissioners discussed the possibility of breaking Wood’s application in two and expressed apparent willingness to recommend approval for the guest ranch to the Board of Routt County Commissioners, while tabling the special events request only.
When Woods said he hadn’t contemplated that possibility before the meeting, veteran Planning Commissioner John Ayer moved to table the entire discussion. The tabling means a planned hearing this month with county commissioners will be postponed until later in April.
In a letter to county officials dated Feb. 12, John C. Doolittle, who owns a home on Diamondback Way overlooking the ranch from Elk River Mountain Ranch Subdivision, wrote: “The range of activities contemplated by Mr. Ryan Wood in his permit request …goes far beyond any activities contemplated in the original conservation easement granted by the Yampa Valley Land Trust to Bill and Cynthia May (the previous ranch owners) and for which favorable tax treatment and monies were exchanged for this contractual event. … Additionally, homeowners on adjacent lots bought their property based on the terms in this conservation easement contract.”
County Commissioner Doug Monger said the terms of the easement are not a factor in determining if Wood’s request fits the county’s master plan and zoning regulations.
Wood has established a natural beef operation, Sweetwood Cattle Company, on the ranch. Wood Ranch LLC also owns three home sites in Elk River Mountain Ranch.
He is seeking permission to build a three-bedroom lodge and a commercial kitchen allowing him, with the use of existing cabins, to host as many as 20 overnight guests and host receptions and events for as many as 200 people on 383 acres of the 525-acre ranch.
“This is a great opportunity to build a business and to have people out into the county,” Wood said Wednesday.
Wood said he was not contemplating guest ranch operations at the time he transferred the conservation easement.
“I envision this as a private property that can host large families or small corporate groups,” Wood said. “We get a lot of people calling and asking if they can come stay here. There’s great fishing with mountain biking nearby and the Hot Springs Trail is right across the road.”
Educating guests about natural beef is part of his intent, Wood added.
Wood said he was interested in working with his neighbors to agree on a reasonable way to measure and limit the noise created by functions at the ranch. His proposal includes using shuttle vans to limit the traffic impacts the operation might have.
Everyone signed off
Chris West, executive director of the Cattlemen’s Trust, said Wednesday that although a transfer of conservation easements is not typical, all of the involved parties — the Yampa Valley Land Trust, the USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service, the county and Great Outdoors Colorado, which also had a financial interest — all signed off on it. The terms of the easement were amended in the process.
“The federal agencies would not have signed off on the amendment if it diminished the easement,” West said. “We’ve strengthened the conservation values by adding 70 acres of hay land, conserving another half-mile of fragile riparian habitat on the Elk River and moving a homesite off a ridgeline.”
In a letter to the county, Shannon Skelton, a fisheries biologist and president of CFI Global Fisheries Management, confirmed that his firm had undertaken extensive stream channel, fish habitat and riparian plant restoration and enhancement on three miles of the Elk River on Wood’s behalf.
The original easement on the S-S May Ranch was valued at $900,000, meaning the overall value of the property was diminished by that amount. Of the total, the May’s donated $470,000.
Doolittle, one of more than 15 neighbors who wrote to the county regarding Wood’s permit request, ventured that some, if not most, of the outside funds that contributed to the easement came from Routt County taxpayers. However, records on file at the county attorney’s office reflect that was not the case — the source of the other $430,000 was not the local Purchase of Development Rights program funded by local property taxes.
Monger referred to the files, which show the $430,000 comprised federal funding from a Farmland Protection Grant authorized by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, through Routt County.
West said the original YVLT easement allowed a guest cottage. West wrote in a Jan. 31 letter to County Planner Jake Rosenberg that the proposed guest ranch operations at Sweetwood Ranch are “specifically permitted as a compatible commercial use,” in its easement. In addition, he wrote that the residential structures described in the site plan meet the limitation for residential square footage within a five-acre building envelope described in the easement.
The county recently approved a conservation easement, secured in part with Purchase of Development Rights funds, on Del’s Triangle Three Ranch, where there is no agricultural activity taking place, but where daily horseback rides for guests are a staple.
“The scenic tours expose people to the area’s ranching heritage, and that’s a pretty important use of the property,” Megan Manner, project manager for the land trust, said in October 2010.
West said that his organization holds a conservation easement on the Focus Guest Ranch straddling the Colorado/Wyoming state line in North Routt. And the Nature Conservancy holds an easement on Vista Verde Guest Ranch, also in North Routt.
Those longstanding guest ranch operations pre-dated the conservation easements and would have factored into the appraisals that were the basis of the easements.
West told the county that guest ranch operations can be an important part of the business plan of cattle ranches.
“Ranching is an honorable, but very difficult, business, and one that has significant hurdles for families to overcome…CCALT understands that in order to make a living, flexibility in the ranching operation is crucial,” West wrote. “CCALT currently holds conservation easements on more than 370,000 acres across the state, many of which run guest ranching operations. Guest ranches are an excellent way to supplement income from agriculture and educate the public about Western heritage and land ethics.”
— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or e-mail tross@SteamboatToday.com