Sweetwood Ranch plan draws crowd in Routt County | SteamboatToday.com

Sweetwood Ranch plan draws crowd in Routt County

Rights, neighbors’ concerns and more factor in Sweetwood permit debate

— The Routt County Planning Commission wants to know more about how Ryan Wood intends to manage the impacts of special events, including weddings, on his Elk River cattle ranch before passing judgment on his request to operate a guest ranch.

"We need more information related to noise abatement," Commissioner John Ayer said. "We need a trial plan before us, and a general traffic plan including a description for how it will be controlled.

"We want to see a general site plan for special events. And even though we already know the lighting has to be (shielded) and downcast, we need a lighting schematic showing how many lights will be used for special events."

With that, the commission voted, 7-0, on Thursday night to table Wood's request for a special use permit until April 7, with the first appearance before the Board of Routt County Commissioners pushed back to late April.

The vote came after more than three hours of discussion and public comments in a room packed with more than 60 people. The numbers of people who stood to speak for and against Wood's plan were roughly equal.

"That ranch means a great deal to me — words can't quite describe what it means to me," Wood said. "This is going to be my family's legacy. I'm not a developer. It's not a theme park."

Wood has established a natural beef operation, Sweetwood Cattle Co., on the ranch.

Wood's neighbors, many in nearby residential subdivisions with lots of 35 acres or more, said they are fearful they will lose the serenity of their neighborhood.

"We agree (small guest ranches) should be done in many cases," Virginia Amato, the longtime owner of Mad Mountain Ranch, said. "But this is a small ranch surrounded on all sides by single-family residences. I shudder to think about 25 tourists singing around a campfire night after night after night."

Karen Anderson said her home sits on a hill directly above the ranch to the north.

"I can look down to the ranch headquarters from my home and the lights are on all night every night," Anderson said. "Does this sound like Colorado agriculture to you? It doesn't to me. Wood is proposing a full-blown commercial development. A venue for weddings interferes with our right to the use of our property."

Other speakers said they think guest ranch operations are important means of adding cash flow necessary to keep family cattle ranches viable and part of the valley's history.

Wood bought the S-S May Ranch from the May family for $5 million in 2007. The ranch is under a conservation easement, but the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust has confirmed the new buildings and activities Wood proposes are within the limits described in the conservation easement.

Bill and Cynthia May's son, Jay, passed out vintage tourism brochures his parents used decades ago to attract guests and hunters to the ranch.

"We liked to share that ranch with as many people as we could," May said. "Here's a brochure for 'May cabins for rent.' We had three cabins and a big bunkhouse. People came out to fish. Church groups would come out and do big sleigh rides and sing Christmas carols. Maybe we made too much noise back then."

Dennis Brust, who has built a ranch on 115 acres along Routt County Road 129, said he thinks people should have the latitude to do what they want on their land.

"I think a lot of this boils down to individual property rights," Brust said. "As we start taking rights away from ranchers in Routt County, we won't be able to do anything with our land. I just hope and pray Ryan gets the permit that he's due."

Split in 2?

Land use planning consultant Peter Patten, who spoke on behalf of several neighbors opposed to the guest ranch, may have had the most influence on Thursday night's hearing.

"My analysis brings me to this," Patten said. "There are two kinds of applications wrapped into one," in Wood's application. "There's a guest ranch, but then there's the other aspect, which is special events, and includes fund-raising events, team building, weddings and private parties."

At the end of the night, the members of the Planning Com­mis­sion seemed to agree.

"I'd like to split this proposal," Ayer said. "I think the (impacts of) the guest ranch proposal can be mitigated satisfactorily. I would recommend that we table the special events section."

Commissioner Alan Goldich urged Wood to consider a two-step approach himself.

"I like what you've done with your property," Goldich said. "Why not start small? Do the guest ranch first. If it's successful and there are no problems with neighbors, then go to special events, so people are eased into this."

After the hearing, Wood said he had not prepared for the possibility that his application would be split into two parts.

Ayer decided against voting on the guest ranch and tabling the special events portion, and moved to table the entire project.

That carried unanimously.

— To reach Tom Ross, call (970) 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboattoday.com