Judges support Humble Ranch, rule against city
State Court of Appeals rules against land trust in trail-related case
March 24, 2010
Steamboat Springs — A court ruling this month fanned the flames of a long-simmering dispute between the city and private landowners regarding owners' rights, land conservation and efforts that began more than a decade ago to increase public access on the south flank of Emerald Mountain.
The Colorado Court of Appeals, in a March 11 ruling, upheld a 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, off Routt County Road 14 south of Steamboat Springs. Three judges concurred on the agreement, which also stipulated that Humble Ventures LLC, including ranch co-owners Ed and Cheri Trousil, is not obligated to build the cabin within any certain timeframe and can do so at its own discretion. The ruling, by extension, does not require Humble Ranch to open certain trail segments on the property to the public.
And there's the rub.
Former Routt County Commissioner Ben Beall was the county's representative in the Yampa River System Legacy Project and also is a former chairman of the Emerald Mountain Partnership. He said building the cabin and opening trails on Humble Ranch to the public were key components of those two groups' correlated efforts a decade ago.
Ed Trousil said those components are not required in the property's real estate documents. The city and the Yampa Valley Land Trust have easements on the property.
"We thought a possible use of that land was to facilitate a public cabin site sometime in the future, at our discretion," Ed Trousil said. "We never gave ownership rights to that site, we just reserved that site in the conservation easement. … If the cabin doesn't exist, then the trails to that cabin don't exist, as well — that was the crux of our lawsuit."
Humble Ventures filed suit against the city in Routt County District Court in July 2007 to prevent the city from building a public cabin or opening certain trails to the public. The district court ruled that the city must restrict public trail access until Humble Ventures built the "community wilderness cabin" at its own discretion.
The Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.
The legacy project brought together numerous entities including the state Division of Wildlife, the Yampa Valley Land Trust, the city of Steamboat Springs, the Bureau of Land Management, Routt and Moffat counties, private landowners and more in a combined multi-million dollar effort to create permanent land use policies for nearly 4,000 acres on and adjacent to Emerald Mountain's south side.
Ed and Cheri Trousil bought the 1,500-acre property in 1999 as part of the legacy project. Kevin Bennett was president of Steamboat Springs City Council at the time. Bennett said the legacy project gave the Trousils $950,000, among other considerations, to help them close on the purchase. A Land Trust official also cited that figure Tuesday.
Beall and Bennett said trail access on Humble Ranch is a crucial component of the much larger system of public trails for mountain bikers, hikers and others on Emerald Mountain and adjacent areas.
"When we invited (Ed) Trousil to be a part of this project, it was only made available to him with the trails — that is the reason we did it. Public access and conservation were the goals of the project," Bennett said Tuesday. "This was probably the best deal to any conservation buyer, by far, and it is sad and a real loss to the community that it appears now that the public access component has been greatly diminished or removed."
Beall said the land use agreement was clear when the Trousils purchased Humble Ranch.
"He bought the property with the trails already on his plat — he's opposed to the community trails that we were setting up through the Emerald Mountain process and the legacy process," Beall said. "He knew exactly what the partnership was doing … as far as opening up Emerald Mountain for public use."
Trousil refuted the notion that by suing the city and not allowing public access to certain trails he violated the trust and vision behind Humble Ranch's involvement in the legacy project.
"Trust and vision is not real estate law — real estate law is governed by written documents," Trousil said. "The documents have always been unambiguous."
Public vs. private
Trousil said one trail on the property is open to the public. The Agate Creek trail runs from the state DOW parking lot on C.R. 14 through Humble Ranch to the Emerald Mountain state wildlife area, a distance Trousil said is about three miles.
That trail is open for public and equestrian use but not for bicycles, Trousil said. He said it is subject to the DOW's seasonal closures, from Dec. 1 to June 30 annually, to protect elk habitat.
The question of whether the city must close its Humble Ranch trail easements to the public when the state DOW closes access to the Emerald Mountain wildlife area also was part of the Court of Appeal's ruling. The court reversed a ruling that said the city did not have to follow the DOW closures but remanded the issue for further proceedings.
The trails involved in the lawsuit and appeal are those accessed from the Agate Creek trail. Trousil said those trails, which number "about five" and lead to different areas, remain closed.
Trousil said he is "adamant about protecting our wildlife habitat" and said the legacy project "resulted in many excellent results including the Emerald Mountain State Park, Chuck Lewis State Park, city owned land on the corner of highways 131 and 40, and the Humble Ranch Education & Therapy Center." The center provides outdoor-oriented therapy for people with special needs.
Denver attorney Tom Lyons, working for the city, said the March 11 ruling might not be the last in the case.
"It's not over," Lyons said.