SNOWMASS — There is a good deal of interest in the Snowmass and Capitol Creek valleys about what kind of grass Houston billionaire Jeff Hildebrand is going to plant on his new polo grounds at the High Mesa Ranch.
Crews working for Hildebrand recently finished moving 170,000 cubic yards of dirt on 47 acres of land to create a level and well-drained place to play the “sport of kings.”
But Hildebrand is now apparently sideways with Pitkin County over the type of grass allowed to be planted on the property, which is well within view of the top of Watson Divide Road.
Kentucky bluegrass is best for polo, but it's not on the county's list of approved grasses for replanting after earthmoving projects.
Now some are wondering whether Hildebrand will plant bluegrass on the sly or ask the Pitkin County commissioners for an exemption.
“A lot of people are just terribly curious to know what is happening up there,” said John Clark, a member of the Snowmass/Capitol Creek Caucus and a resident of the East Sopris Creek Valley.
And as they wait to see what kind of grass emerges on the newly leveled field, some residents of the Snowmass and Capitol Creek valleys also are wondering if a new private polo ranch will change the character of the area, which is still rural yet increasingly posh.
Hildebrand's 203-acre estate is ultimately to include the polo grounds, a horse barn, stables, a small ranch office, a ranch manager's house, a pool house and a 10,300-square-foot residence.
All of the structures, save for the horse barn, already exist on the property. And most of them are visible from a high corner of the road on the adjoining Windstar property, which has a conservation easement that allows public access.
A polo playing field is 300 yards long and 160 yards wide, equal to nine football fields or about 10 acres.
Typically, a fairly large area around a polo field includes safety and runoff zones. And it is common to also find a half-size “stick and ball” field next to the playing field, along with a paddock, a riding arena and an exercise track.
In all, according to grading plans for Hildebrand's High Mesa Ranch, 25 acres have been precisely leveled, presumably for polo, although the county was told it was simply to create a better hayfield.
And construction crews also have regraded another 22 acres around the polo fields, the ranch buildings and the main residence.
The earthmoving work has been under way since last summer, and the finished project should be a private — but highly visible — polo facility.
“I think what is bothering people is that you can't help but look at it when you come over Watson Divide,” said Steve Child, who ranches in the Capitol Creek Valley.
Grass or turf?
Now the planting season is ending, and the revegetation plan on file with the county calls for oats and alfalfa to be sowed on the now exceptionally flat 25 acres on the property — the planned polo field — and a mix of native pasture grasses is to be planted on the remaining 22 acres.
“It was represented that they would use both hayseed and Pitkin County seed mix,” said Susan Pearson, the county's zoning officer who signed off on the revegetation plan for High Mesa Ranch.
Trouble is, Kentucky bluegrass is required to create the kind of turf that keeps polo ponies on their feet and white balls rolling smoothly toward the goal. Alfalfa and oats, and native pasture grasses, are just not good enough for polo.
“I believe the only option in your area is Kentucky bluegrass,” said Ray Mooney, the director of facilities at the International Polo Club in Wellington, Fla., when asked what kind of grass might work for a polo field in Pitkin County.
“In Colorado, the most common turf would be Kentucky bluegrass or a mixture of Kentucky bluegrass and turf-type fescues,” Mooney wrote via email.
Hildebrand and his representatives have declined repeated requests to discuss the project, most recently noting that “all activities on the ranch will comply with lawful county regulations.”
Child, however, said Hildebrand's representatives have known for months that if they planted bluegrass on the new polo fields, they would violate county regulations.
“Their landscape person said they wanted to plant bluegrass, but the county does not allow that,” Child said. “Bluegrass would grow, they have the water, they could irrigate it, but it wasn't on the approved list of species from the county.”
The comments by Hildebrand's representatives were made at a caucus meeting last fall, Child said.
Child is a rancher who serves as the head of the land-use review committee for the Snowmass/Capitol Creek Caucus and also is running for county commissioner.
“We told them that if they had been truthful up front, it probably would have been allowed as agricultural,” Child said. “I'm curious to know what they are planning on planting there. Bluegrass will look like a lawn.”
In August 2011, Hildebrand's representatives described their project in an earthmoving permit application as “site grading for better agricultural use.”
That was true, technically, but less than completely candid.
“It was my impression that the work was to improve irrigation and drainage for the pasture,” said Lance Clarke, the assistant director of community development for Pitkin County. “They never mentioned it was for a polo field.”
A handwritten note by Pearson, the county zoning officer, on the revegetation report for the project reads, “Alfalfa and oats OK! to use as this property is ranching hay.”
State officials also got the impression the work was for agricultural purposes, as a stormwater management permit describes the project as “leveling for improved growing and drainage conditions.”
But for growing what?
Alfalfa and native wheatgrasses?
If it is bluegrass, Child said Hildebrand should now seek an exemption from the county.
“He should do it up front and not plant the seed,” Child said.
Clarke said representatives from High Mesa Ranch have in fact asked the staff if it was OK to plant bluegrass on the regraded pasture, and Clarke said Cindy Houben, the director of community development, denied the request.
He said bluegrass is thirsty, it's non-native, it takes a lot of fertilizer to keep green, and it looks decidedly different from a pasture with native grasses.
And if High Mesa wants to appeal Houben's decision, it needs to go to the board of county commissioners.
One key point in the turf battle: The High Mesa Ranch project has not violated land-use regulations to date, according to Clarke.
For example, the county does in fact allow private pastures to be regraded to improve irrigation and drainage — and there is no required discussion about potential future activities in the pasture, such as polo.
But then again, the county does require that those pastures be replanted with approved seed mixes.
And what works for the county does not work for polo.
To date, Clarke said, Hildebrand's representatives have not told the county they wish to appeal Houben's denial of their request to plant bluegrass.
Private yet visible
Hildebrand is the founder, chairman and CEO of Houston-based Hilcorp Energy Co., one of the largest privately owned independent oil and gas companies in the country.
Forbes describes him as “ultra-private,” with a self-made net worth of $5.3 billion. He's at No. 59 on the Forbes 400 list.
Hildebrand already had ties to the local community as he also owns residential property near downtown Aspen.
A primary local representative is Doug Kelly, the vice president of Aspen High Mesa LLC, the entity controlled by Hildebrand that owns the property.
Kelly, who applied for the earthmoving permit, declined to discuss the project, saying via email that the High Mesa Ranch property “is privately owned, and we do not comment on the property.”
And Kevin Dunnett, of Dunnett Design Group Inc. in Aspen, who did the revegetation plan for the project, said he could not discuss it.
County planners said they will now keep a close eye on the highly visible site and said that Aspen High Mesa LLC has posted a $25,000 bond as part of its earthmoving permit.
A note from Pearson, the county zoning officer who reviewed the revegetation plan, instructs Hildebrand's representatives to “call for inspection when acreage has 70 percent coverage.”
They've yet to call.
The revegetation bond is to be returned if the project is completed in accordance with county standards.
Michael Kraemer, a Pitkin County planner who has worked on aspects of the project, acknowledges that county staffers now understand the pasture is intended to be used as a polo field.
“We've heard that they have wanted to build a polo field,” Kraemer said. “And we've required certain things about the pasture, including seed mix and a $25,000 performance bond.”
The High Mesa Ranch polo field also has prompted discussion among county staffers about when a private pasture becomes an “equestrian facility,” according to Clarke. Currently, there is nothing in the Pitkin County land-use code to regulate noncommercial polo fields or other such “equestrian facilities” on private land.
Clarke said it is apparently time to explore such regulations.
“There are concerns about the changing character of the area,” he said.
A penchant for polo
Hildebrand, 53, is an accomplished and enthusiastic polo player.
He has a 0.5 handicap on a scale of -2 to 10, according to the U.S. Polo Association, which notes most players are rated below 2. And he frequently sponsors four-member teams at high-level polo tournaments.
Hildebrand has held tournaments in conjunction with the Houston Polo Club at his private Tonkawa Farms, to which he has flown via helicopter from his downtown Houston office building.
And one of his corporate entities, South Road Wellington LP, paid $17 million in June 2011 for a 113-acre parcel of flat land in order to build a private polo facility near the International Polo Club in Florida, the epicenter of American polo each winter.
“It's spectacular what he's doing out there,” said Alex Webbe, a polo consultant and a correspondent for more than a dozen international polo publications and online magazines.
But in July and August, it is much nicer to play in Colorado than either Florida or Texas.
In April 2011, Hildebrand's Aspen High Mesa LLC paid $13.3 million for the 203 acres of land between Snowmass Creek and the Windstar property.
The property is on a long, sloping mesa directly visible from the top of Watson Divide Road, which is a designated scenic area under county regulations.
The land was once part of the Harald “Shorty” Pabst ranch, as was the Windstar parcel and the Lazy O Ranch.
In August 2011, representatives for Aspen High Mesa LLC signed for the earthmoving permit from Pitkin County to grade the pasture and revegetate according to county regulations.
Three months later, the county gave Aspen High Mesa permission, in a different process, to widen the bottom of the driveway and build a long rock retaining wall.
Then in March 2012, in a third separate county process, Hildebrand was granted the right to build a new 5,500-square-foot horse barn, which now appears to be under construction.
In that application, Hildebrand's planner did subtly indicate that the pasture would be used for more than agriculture, citing “recreational purposes.”
“The purpose of this project is to create a more level meadow that can be productively planted and irrigated and used for ranching and recreational purposes,” wrote Alan Richman, a land-use planner for the project, in an application to the county. Richman declined to discuss the project.
No master plan
Pitkin County's Clarke said three different representatives of High Mesa Ranch brought in the three different project applications, which made it harder to see the full development picture.
“If all of that had been forthcoming at the outset, it might have been handled differently,” Clarke said of the polo fields, the driveway and the barn.
He said the county might have taken a closer look at whether the whole project violated the scenic-view restrictions in place at the top of Watson Divide.
The Snowmass-Capitol Creek Caucus, which reviews development applications on an advisory basis for Pitkin County, did review the proposed barn and ultimately supported it.
But the caucus did not review the barn in the full context of the polo fields and other equestrian facilities on the High Mesa Ranch property.
And many caucus members felt they should have been given the chance to do so, Child said.
“We would rather see the big picture right up front,” Child said.
For example, earthmoving permits are not sent to the caucus for review, but Child said he's asked to change that.
“I don't think there is a resident in the valley who hasn't shaken their head coming over Watson Divide,” said Kelly Hayes, who lives in the Shield-O-Mesa neighborhood farther up Snowmass Creek. “A number of valley residents thought it was an airstrip being built.”
While county planners and officials did consider how Hildebrand's barn might violate scenic standards, and decided it would not, they never considered the scenic impact of a laser-leveled polo field planted in bright-green bluegrass.
On the other hand, much of the point of the county's restrictive land-use code is to keep land in an agricultural state.
And horses in a pasture, no matter how carefully designed and built the pasture may be, are still considered an agricultural use under the county code.
That is how Clark, the property owner in East Sopris Creek, who used to play polo, thinks it should be.
“A polo field is just a different pasture,” he said. “And anyone who says we have too many equestrian facilities should move somewhere else. This community wants to be a ranching community, with horses and grass. And it's hard to criticize bluegrass. It is beautiful and green.”
But it is not on the list of the county's approved agricultural grasses.
The whole pasture-leveling, polo-field-building process has dismayed Hayes.
“For me personally, the biggest disappointment is cresting Watson Divide and looking across for the last 12 months at the destruction of a pristine mesa, all to create another private playground for a part-time resident,” he said.
Four large earthmoving “belly-scraper” vehicles toiled on the site almost every workday this summer and last.
And moving 170,000 cubic yards of dirt to regrade 45 acres of pasture with a 12-foot differential is not a small project.
By comparison, 44,000 cubic yards of dirt were moved last year to extend the runway at the Aspen airport by 1,000 feet.
“We've definitely had some citizens in the neighborhood ask questions about the activity at 4001 Snowmass Creek Road,” Kraemer said. “We've told the public they have site approval for a barn and they are regrading their pasture.”
Culture of polo
Hildebrand's pasture-turned-polo field is not the first in the neighborhood.
There is a practice field and two playing fields on the nearby McCabe Ranch in the Capitol Creek Valley, and all three appear to be planted with bluegrass.
The fields there, however, are said to slope slightly, which can be hard on polo ponies.
One of the fields is just off the private Rose Spur Road, and the Rose Spur Polo Club organizes high-end private matches on the McCabe Ranch fields in July and August.
Lani White, an Aspen real estate broker and a longtime member and player with the Aspen Polo Club, said polo matches have been held in well-mowed pastures up and down the Roaring Fork Valley for more than 30 years, although now the club currently has nowhere to play.
And the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs built polo grounds in the 1890s along what is still called Polo Road.
But despite polo's local history, and the area's horsey feel, the Snowmass/Capitol Creek Caucus told county planners in formal comments there were concerns about trucks with horse trailers being able to make the tight turn off the narrow Snowmass Creek Road en route to Hildebrand's property.
A high-level polo match can mean there are 50 to 65 horses on site, as it takes eight men to play — four per side — and each man usually brings a string of at least six to eight horses.
This summer, there were several polo events held on the 25-year-old private polo field on Sopris Mountain Ranch in the West Sopris Creek Valley.
A polo tournament was held there over two weekends in July with the public invited to attend for free. It was a charity event with corporate sponsors.
And a polo-cross event — lacrosse on horseback — was held there over another weekend in July.
“We didn't have any complaints at all,” said Norm Clasen, of Sopris Mountain Ranch. “It's always kind of fun to watch horses running around.”
He said the polo-cross event attracted about 80 spectators to Sopris Mountain Ranch and the polo events about 50.
“We're trying to promote local polo as opposed to what they do out at Rose Spur, which is about really high-end players who pay a ton of money to come out,” Clasen said.
White said she doubts the public will be invited to watch polo matches at Hildebrand's High Mesa Ranch.
“It is a dream of anyone who plays polo to have their own polo fields,” White said. “Go out in the morning and hit the ball around, break for lunch, sit by the pool for a while, and then go play again in the afternoon before cocktails. I'm sure that's all he wants. He doesn't want spectators or to have tournaments.”
On the other hand, the county does not regulate private events, such as weddings or other events where there is no admission charge.
So Hildebrand, or the subsequent owner of High Mesa Ranch, could well hold invitation-only polo events without a special-use permit.
And that's part of what worries Hayes of Shield-O-Mesa.
“It has long been a rural and agricultural area, and it is now poised to become more of a recreational area,” Hayes said.
But that may depend on what kind of grass grows on High Mesa Ranch.
Editor's note: This story was published in collaboration with The Aspen Times, which ran the story on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012.