Editor’s note: See update in the May 2, 2013 edition of The Aspen Times.
The Windstar Land Conservancy is seeking to sell the 957-acre Windstar property bought by John Denver in the late 1970s. The asking price is $13.5 million.
The Conservancy also intends to gain approval from Pitkin County to allow for the construction of a single-family home on a 30-acre parcel while maintaining a conservation easement on the remaining 927 acres.
The proceeds from the sale would be split by the two nonprofit groups that control the Windstar Land Conservancy and own the land, the Windstar Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Institute.
“There are several prospective buyers,” said Marty Pickett, the executive director and general counsel of RMI. “We are getting a lot of interest.”
Denver bought the ranch property so the Windstar Foundation, which he formed in 1976, could create “a place up in the mountains where people would come to develop a critical consciousness in regard to the earth,” according to Denver in his autobiography, “Take Me Home.”
Today, however, the Windstar Foundation is but a shell of Denver’s vision.
“Its Camelot days are over,” said Karmen Dopslaff, the president of the Windstar Foundation board.
Dopslaff said the Windstar board plans to give its half of the money from a sale of the land to local organizations doing work consistent with the Windstar Foundation’s vision and then shut down.
“We kind of went to sleep for a few years,” Dopslaff said. “But there are really lots of other organizations doing its work. Why not support those folks?”
But the decision to sell the land at the center of one of John Denver’s dreams was hard, Dopslaff said.
“It broke my heart when we were being pushed into selling,” she said, referring to a 2004 rejection from the neighbors about a plan to expand the nonprofit campus at Windstar.
RMI is now the dominant nonprofit on the Windstar property and controls two of the five seats on the board of the Windstar Land Conservancy.
The Windstar Foundation also holds two seats and the fifth at-large seat is held by Jane Ellen Hamilton, the former director of Pitkin County’s open space program.
When Amory and Hunter Lovins co-founded RMI in 1982, they were members of Windstar’s advisory board. Their Windstar roots run deep.
Today, RMI has 20 employees working on the Windstar property and it has another 50 employees in Boulder.
Amory Lovins continues to maintain a separate residence and office in Old Snowmass built in the mid-1980s and used by RMI since then as an example of an innovative and energy-efficient building.
Pickett, of RMI, said she didn’t yet know how the organization would spend its money from the sale, but RMI is designing a new, 20,000-square-foot office building it plans to construct in Basalt.
As part of the process of finding a buyer to the Windstar property, RMI intends to submit an application to Pitkin County for approval of an “activity envelope” that would specify where a single-family home and other buildings could be located.
The home, with a maximum size of 8,250 square feet, would be placed inside a 30-acre parcel at Windstar that has long been designated as an appropriate place for the development of a nonprofit campus.
Both a 1996 conservation easement and a 1979 approval for Windstar from Pitkin County refer to a nonprofit facility, but both are silent about a luxury, single-family home and related ranch buildings.
The county commissioners may also be asked by RMI to amend the conservation easement to allow for some limited trailhead parking on the 30-acre parcel, which would make it easy for the public to continue to hike and horseback ride on the 927-acres of protected land.
Today, there is a 46-space parking lot on the site for RMI employees and the public, but the parking lot is not mentioned in a 1996 conservation easement that dictates use of the property. The easement guarantees public access to the land, but is silent on a parking lot.
In 2004, RMI proposed expanding the campus in line with county approvals gained by Windstar in 1979, but many neighbors strongly objected to a larger office building and new employee housing on the site.
The local community’s stance was that the nonprofit could stay the same on the property, but not grow.
Now RMI wants to sell and leave the property, secure in the knowledge that it firmly protected 927 out of the 957 acres at Windstar in accordance with Denver’s vision.
Yet some people close to Windstar feel a single-family home on the property is inconsistent with what Denver envisioned. And they’d rather see it sold to another nonprofit that would continue to care for the land and educate people about the stewardship of Mother Earth, such as the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
“We would be thrilled if ACES would buy it,” said Dopslaff of the Windstar Foundation.
ACES now runs programs on four pieces of protected property in the valley — Hallam Lake in Aspen, Toklat at Ashcroft, Rock Bottom Ranch along the lower Roaring Fork River, and Spring Creek in the Fryingpan River valley.
But Dopslaff also feels that if proceeds from the sale help RMI and other nonprofits carry on and do good work, then so be it.
Origins of Windstar
The late John Denver, nee Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., moved to Aspen in late 1970 when he was 27 and bought land in the Starwood subdivision with proceeds from an early hit song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
A string of hits would follow, including “Rocky Mountain High” in 1972. The song, while euphoric about life in the mountains, also includes a reference to the fear of development in the mountains and “more scars upon the land.”
“In 1972 I was already thinking, ‘love the earth as you would love yourself,’ and I was full of zeal and energy, eager to do something ‘good’ in the world — those were homegrown values, still intact if unpacked,” Denver writes in “Take Me Home.” “Having the capital to play with only cinched it; I was going to invest in ‘good works.’”
In 1976, Denver formed the Windstar Foundation and along with friend and bodyguard Tom Crum of Aspen and his business manager Hal Thau, began to envision “an institution that was school, meeting place, and model environment combined,” Denver wrote in his autobiography.
“We were going to construct a complex of high-tech buildings where we’d have conferences and year-round workshops,” he wrote. “People would come to learn about the environment so that they could take what they learned back out into the world. Workshops and conferences would focus on the environment and be built around the connections between mind, body, and spirit.”
In 1978, the Windstar Foundation paid $500,000 for 94.8 acres of land owned by the St. Benedict Monastery.
The monks had bought the land from Harald “Shorty” Pabst of the Pabst Brewing Co. family, who owned over 3,000 acres of surrounding land, including what is now the Lazy-O Ranch subdivision next to the Windstar property along Capitol Creek Road.
Pabst, who was once mayor of Aspen and executive vice president of the Aspen Institute, was a friend of the monastery, according to Father Charles of St. Benedict’s Monastery in the Capitol Creek valley.
The monks used the ranch house on the property, built in 1952, as a guest house and a retreat center. In the end, though, Father Charles said it proved to be an inconvenient distance from the main monastery property.
The deed for the sale of the 94 acres to the Windstar Foundation lists the address of the Windstar Foundation as being in care of Royalty Controls Corp. of Stamford, Conn., which managed the proceeds from the sale of Denver’s music.
“In 1978, I had six albums on the charts, and the money was flowing,” Denver wrote in “Take Me Home.”
In 1979 Denver bought an adjoining 863-acre parcel of land from Pabst known as the Bohan Valley for $687,400, according to county records.
For $1.2 million, Denver had assembled a 957-acre parcel that looks like the shape of a whale, both on a map and from the air, which is where Denver is said to have first noticed the property.
Before closing on the second of the parcels in 1979, the Windstar Foundation gained approval from the Pitkin County commissioners for the new-age facility that Denver had envisioned.
A resolution was passed in 1979 by three county commissioners — Joe Edwards, Bob Child and Michael Kinsley — for “an educational and research institute dedicated to the creation of an environmentally aware, holistic, and synergistic center, devoted to raising human consciousness at all levels — individual, social, political and environmental.”
The commissioners approved joining the two properties Denver had purchased into the single, 957-acre parcel that remains intact today.
They approved a campus with up to 40,000 square feet of buildings, including housing for up to 20 Windstar employees and their families. All of the development was to be clustered on the lower end of the property below 7,400 feet.
Parking was to be limited to 12 to 15 spaces, with all visitors being brought to the site in small vans after being picked up at Aspen Village or the Old Snowmass Conoco. And up to 50 people could be on site for seminars, programs and community picnics.
At the time, the Snowmass Capitol Creek Caucus, which advises the commissioners on development in the area, submitted “an enthusiastic, unanimous endorsement of Windstar’s application,” according to the resolution.
The caucus was to be allowed to hold its meetings on the property, and today it still does.
John Katzenberg, a former Windstar managing director, said the 1979 resolution from Pitkin County is “probably the clearest representation of what John wanted to see happen on the land.”
Whose garden was this?
A 1982 self-guided-tour map of the facility is also instructive about what Windstar achieved.
The map said Windstar’s purpose was “education and demonstration of appropriate technologies, food production techniques, and lifestyles that enable people to operate at their highest potential in an environmentally conscious and gentle manner.”
Windstar modified the ranch house, adding a greenhouse along the front and installing other demonstration solar energy systems. It would later add several dorm rooms in the building.
It erected a $25,000 tent with 5,000 square feet of sheltered space for meetings, seminars and Tom Crum’s akido-based workshops.
Buckminster Fuller, an early Windstar advisory board member, inspired a biodome on the property to demonstrate food production techniques. It still stands today over a pod of carved wooden whales.
“Under Bucky’s tutelage we re-envisioned Windstar less as a model of environmental concern than as a state of consciousness,” Denver wrote in “Take Me Home.”
Windstar did not build any employee housing or put up any other significant structures on the property. Today, the place resembles a quiet, 1950s-era ranch with a far out ranch building, several small cabins and a Bucky dome.
In addition to its activities on site, Windstar also held 10 annual Choices for the Future conferences starting in 1986. The events brought luminaries from many sectors together much as the Aspen Ideas Festival does today. And the Windstar Foundation had grown to include 25 to 30 employees.
“Supporting all that activity became expensive,” Denver writes in his autobiography about his good works. “It would reach the point where I needed to take home more than $2 million a year in order to do it. It would become an enormous treadmill that kept going faster and faster.”
Two sides of Windstar
Denver wrote his autobiography in 1994 at age 50, three years before his death in a plane crash in California.
In the book, he does not describe the unraveling of Windstar, but Karen D’Attilo, who taught meditation, children’s music and poetry at Windstar, said that as the demands on Denver’s time and attention grew, some poor choices were made.
“Hal Thau never liked Windstar,” D’Attilo said about Denver’s business manager. “He thought it was a bad investment. And the people that Hal Thau brought in did not share the same philosophy that John did.
“The fan base that loved John and his music could have supported Windstar,” she said. “It could have been a great success. It was doing amazing things.”
She said one high point for her was a night at the Music Tent during a Choices conference when the assembled leaders of all the remaining Native American tribes in the U.S. marched in together.
In 1986, RMI’s Amory Lovins spoke at a Choices for the Future event, noting that, “It is critical to remember that our policies must be sustainable. We must devise management schemes with sustainability as the bottom line. Not profit.”
But the Windstar Foundation ran up a sizable debt, taking out loans with local banks and using the property as collateral.
“There was this spiritual side of Windstar and then there was this corporate screw-up side,” D’Attilo said.
The National Wildlife Federation’s role
In 1990 the National Wildlife Federation stepped in and bought half of the Windstar property.
Jay Hair, then the president of the NWF, was a friend and colleague of Denver’s and was willing to help protect the property from development.
The NWF paid $886,000 to the Windstar Foundation for its share of the property, according to Ann Morgan, the director of NWF’s Rocky Mountain office. The NWF then also helped finance ongoing Windstar Foundation programs.
By 1995 the NWF was ready to leave Windstar, and RMI, which had been leasing the property for its offices for several years, stepped up to raise the money to meet NWF’s asking price.
“Windstar had continued in a much reduced way as a nonprofit compared to what it had been in the 1980s,” Katzenberger said. “RMI was the only entity in a position to take care of the land.”
While Windstar had faded over the years, RMI had grown.
In 1985, when Lovins gained county approval to build his energy-efficient compound along Snowmass Creek, he had 12 employees and was allowed three to work with him in the 4,000 square feet of living and office space.
As it grew, RMI bought other properties in the valley to use for employee housing and leased increasingly more office space at Windstar.
As part of its effort to raise the $1.5 million to buy out the NWF, RMI was instrumental in putting a formal conservation easement on the Windstar property, which the Windstar Foundation had not done.
Pitkin County put $250,000 of open space funds toward the purchase of the conservation easement, contingent upon RMI successfully raising the balance of the $1.5 million
In 1997, after a successful capital campaign, RMI paid NWF $1.5 million and NWF recorded a gain of $614,000 on the sale of the property.
“Our goal was to be there forever,” said RMI’s Pickett.
RMI has also spent over $1 million to restore the land and wetlands on the property, according to a 2005 letter it sent to neighbors.
Today, the county assessor values the combined property at $5.3 million. The land itself is valued at $5 million and the main office building, and several other small structures, are valued at $326,900.
Public open space?
Today, the conservation easement is the primary document that guides the future of the Windstar property, although RMI has argued that the 1979 approvals from the county are still relevant and in place.
In addition to agricultural use, the easement allows for “passive, non-motorized, non-commercial” recreational uses “including hiking, horseback riding and cross-country skiing on existing roads and trials …”
The easement also allows that up to 25,000 square feet of housing for 20 nonprofit employees could be built on the 30-acre parcel set aside for development.
Public use has been relatively light with perhaps the most use coming from neighbors who ride horses on the property.
A sign on the land directs visitors to stay on designated trails, but the only trail appears to be a ranch road that leads up a hillside to an irrigation ditch.
There is not, as one might expect, a well-marked trail that loops up and back through the meadow and/or the woods on the property, perhaps with a bench at the top of a ridge with an inspirational view. Instead, a visitor can feel they are on the wrong trail and not welcome on the upper part of the land.
RMI, in a 2005 letter to its neighbors, described the public conservation easement as one that “serves permanently as wildlife habitat, a place for the public (primarily our neighbors) to hike and ride their horses, and a hot-air balloon landing site.”
In 1996, RMI and Windstar submitted an application for funding to Great Outdoors Colorado stating that “RMI and Windstar will maintain and enhance the property’s use as a community park. Guaranteed public access will be limited only as necessary to protect the resource, primarily during muddy elk calving and deer fawning times.”
In 2004, RMI’s leaders decided it would make the Windstar property the organization’s long-term home.
At that time, it had seven employees working in Boulder, 32 employees working at the Windstar office building and about eight employees working at Lovins’ home-office a few miles away.
RMI submitted an application to Pitkin County that it felt was consistent with the 1979 approvals for a small, nonprofit campus.
It proposed to replace the 7,800-square-foot building with up to 25,000 square feet of new office space — big enough for 55 employees.
It proposed to build 15,000 square feet of housing for up to 20 employees.
And it proposed expanding the parking lot from 46 spaces to 51 spaces, formalizing a horse-trailer turnaround area and adding 14 more parking spaces for employee housing.
But it ran into opposition from the powerful Snowmass Capitol Creek Caucus, which had recently completed a master plan for the area.
Caucus suggests otherwise
The Snowmass/Capitol Creek master plan considers the Windstar property, as well as the Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and St. Bendict’s Monastery, appropriate for “institutional” use, including “summer camps, research facilities and retreat centers.”
But the plan says any new uses on such sites are to be “small-scale” and “fully compatible” with the rural-residential character of the surrounding neighborhoods.
After reviewing RMI’s proposal, the caucus board neither approved nor denied the plan, but it wrote a report to the county that concluded RMI’s proposal was not consistent with the master plan.
” … RMI may have outgrown our rural residential neighborhood as the proper location for all future organizational growth in the next 25-50 years,” the caucus report said. “While the spiritual center of RMI/Windstar would be welcome for the long term in suitable replacement facilities on portions of the 30 acre reserved area, the offices and housing to accommodate substantial future growth should be sited within the urban growth boundary of Basalt, Carbondale or other appropriate community.”
And many neighbors spoke out in opposition, citing traffic, lighting, and the commercial nature of RMI’s consulting business.
“We are vehemently opposed to the proposed Windstar expansion,” wrote Kathryn, Alison and Elizabeth Eastley in a letter to the county. “The rural nature of the Snowmass/Capitol Creek Valley will be irreparably damaged, traffic will increase exponentially, and John Denver’s legacy and affection for this valley will be perverted and twisted into a project that smacks of greed, avarice and total disregard for the nature of this valley.”
RMI also tripped up trouble when it proposed rezoning the land to a “public” designation, which under county regulations might have allowed the property to also be used as a nursing home.
When questioned about this, RMI officials said in a letter, “we would prefer not to deed restrict against it [a nursing home] since it could potentially be a future use that the community could welcome.”
Windstar amended its proposal and shrunk the total development to 24,500 square feet, but it still ran into opposition.
“Your mission is to walk softly across the globe, but I think you are dancing loudly here at home,” caucus member Suzanne Caskey told RMI officials, as reported by The Aspen Times.
Caskey was also critical of RMI’s past use of the Windstar tent, as RMI would rent the tent for outside private events that included amplified music.
RMI eventually folded the tent, once an iconic symbol of the Windstar Foundation, for good.
After a contentious Pitkin County planning and zoning meeting, RMI withdrew its proposal and agreed to work on a code amendment with the county that might simplify a future review process.
The county’s land-use code was later changed to suit a situation like RMI’s, but RMI never filed a new application to develop the Windstar campus.
Today, RMI is ready for change.
“We had so much opposition from the neighbors,” Pickett said. “They didn’t want any future expansion or increased use or traffic.”
Today, on the lower portion of the Windstar property there is a statue of John Denver holding an eagle and around the statue are bricks carved with messages.
After Denver’s death on Oct. 12, 1997, the property attracted many fans who wished to remember the man and his music.
Today, the John Denver Sanctuary along the Roaring Fork River near downtown Aspen increasingly plays the role of a place to remember Denver, and the area around the sanctuary has recently been rebuilt into a stunningly beautiful riverside garden.
“The fans make their pilgrimage from all over the world to Windstar,” Dopslaff of the Windstar Foundation said. “But that is kind of waning. They have transferred their spirit to the garden in Aspen. They love that garden.”
So even if a home is built on the site, fans will still be able to come to his adopted hometown and have a powerful place to be.
(Although, it should be noted that the stone in the sanctuary inscribed with the lyrics to “Rocky Mountain High” does not include the verse that reads: “Now his life is full of wonder, but his heart still knows some fear/of a simple thing he can not comprehend./Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more,/more people, more scars upon the land.”)
Windstar giving away proceeds?
And if the Windstar Foundation does receive half the proceeds from the sale, and gives it to local organizations, won’t that also further Denver’s vision?
“We’ve agreed to support those agencies that are really doing the work,” said Dopslaff. “We don’t want to dilute it.”
When pressed for an example of such a group, Dopslaff said she didn’t want to be specific, but did say the group Aspen T.R.E.E., which teaches sustainable living and farming in cooperation with ACES, would be an example.
“We would be kind of a middle man, making sure John Denver’s vision for the world continues on,” she said. “If it would sell, it would be an advantage to the community, as I see it.”
Should the Windstar Foundation, now enriched with the foresight of John Denver’s land purchase, carry on the vision itself, even though it would have no physical home?
No, says Karen D’Attilo, the former music teacher at Windstar.
“Windstar has so many things in the closet that it would be almost impossible to fix,” she said. “There are a group of people are who literally groupies, who showed up after John died and think they know what is going on. But they don’t have the moralistic timbre, if you will.”
D’Attilo also said that Denver had decided to close the Windstar Foundation six weeks before he died.
“They had moved the stuff out of there and into a garage in Carbondale,” she said. “The land was going to be there, but Windstar per se, John knew it was a done deal.”
Choices for the future
While the status quo at the Windstar property seems OK with the caucus, many neighbors might rather see a single-family home there as it would bring less traffic.
But many in the neighborhood also want to see vehicle access to the site remain intact. They want parking for a few cars and a space big enough to turn a horse trailer around.
The fate of a parking lot is not entirely up to RMI though, as there is no approval for a lot in the conservation easement and it’s not clear if the 12 to 15 parking spaces approved in the 1979 plan are still valid.
A 1979 transportation plan submitted to the county by Windstar said “absolutely no visitor vehicles will be allowed on facility grounds.”
“It is not really meant to be a horse trail for the rich folk up in Snowmass,” said Dopslaff. “But we will work on having some kind of parking lot.”
But public parking lots and single-family homes don’t normally go well together.
RMI has said that 27 homes could once have been built on the 957 acres at Windstar, and so the 927 acres under the protection of the conservation easement may be the best showcase of Denver’s values and aspirations.
So, is one home on the lower end of the property an insult to the man who wrote “Rocky Mountain High?”
“In terms of the single-family residence, it seems like there would be less impact than a campus situation,” said Martha Cochran, the executive director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust, which is responsible for protecting the 927 acres under the conservation easement. “That seems to be a less intense use than what is allowed there now. That is something that we look on favorably because of less impact.”
But is a single-family home even allowed by the conservation easement?
“While it doesn’t speak directly to it, it does not prohibit it,” Cochran said.
In “Take Me Home,” Denver writes that he first had a vision of a place like Windstar when he was a lonesome kid climbing trees behind his suburban Tuscon home.
“It was in those trees that I first fantasized about Windstar, about having a place up in the mountains where people could come together and talk and not feel alone,” Denver wrote.
He first visited Aspen when he followed Annie, of “Annie’s Song,” here while she was on a college ski trip.
“I was convinced that one day we were going to live in the mountains,” Denver wrote. “People were going to want to listen to what I had to say, and what I had to say to people would be meaningful; I would lead ‘by the hand and by the heart.’ Annie took it all with a grain of salt, as well she might.”
The Windstar Foundation may not have panned out, but the property he purchased will always be protected, and open to the public, even if there is a luxury home at the bottom of the property instead of a nonprofit dedicated to saving the planet.
“I don’t know how John would feel about it all,” said Katzenberger, who worked at Windstar from 1979 to 1989 and now runs the Aspen Global Change Institute. “If Windstar just wants to go along with what RMI wants, who knows, he might go for it. But now it is up to the current people to do the right thing.”
A shed door at Windstar. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith
A version of this story was published in the Perspectives section of the Denver Post on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012.
A version of this story was published by The Aspen Times on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012.
An Associated Press version of the story in the Times was published by the Denver Post on Monday, Oct. 1, 2012.
The Aspen Daily News ran a letter about the story on Tuesday, Oct. 2.
On Wednesday, Oct. 3, Aspen Times columnist Andy Stone wrote about Windstar.
On Thursday, Oct. 4, the website Real Aspen posted the story from Aspen Journalism’s website.
Freelance photographer Dan Bayer took additional photos for the Sunday Denver Post story on Oct. 23, 2012. They are below. They can be used without charge if credit given to Aspen Journalism/Dan Bayer. And please link the photo credit to AspenJournalism.org.