March 27, 2013

Eagle County commissioners reject Missouri Heights guest ranch proposal

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After it became clear Tuesday evening that all three Eagle County commissioners were prepared to vote no on a proposed zoning change for the Dragonfly Ranch on lower Missouri Heights, the applicants withdrew their proposal at the invitation of Commissioner and board chair Jon Stavney.

It was an unexpected ending to the three-hour-long land-use meeting, which brought close to 80 Missouri Heights residents to the Eagle County building in El Jebel to oppose the proposal by Alex and Laura Kim to turn their 47-acre residential property into a guest ranch and special event venue.

The proposal would have allowed 36 events a year, including weddings and corporate retreats, for up to 130 people. It also would have allowed eight guest rooms to be built, along with an “accessory dwelling unit.”

Neighbors said the proposal would increase noise, lights, traffic and fire hazards and that it was incompatible with the 95 homes that are within a half-mile of the property — many of which are on hillsides overlooking it.

After Stavney had expressed his conclusion that the commercial proposal was incompatible with the Missouri Heights neighborhood that surrounds the Dragonfly Ranch’s residence and 45-acre hayfield, and after he confirmed that his two fellow board members — Jill Ryan and Sara Fisher — felt the same way, he asked the applicant’s attorney if he desired a vote to deny the application or if he wanted to withdraw it.

He said the only material difference between a vote to deny or a withdrawal is that after getting a formal denial, an applicant cannot re-submit for 12 months. But by withdrawing, the applicant was not bound by that rule.

Stavney’s offer stunned many in the audience and a few called out for the board to vote, saying the commissioners owed the local people in the room that much.

The Eagle County commissioners rarely hold meetings in the portion of the county that is in the Roaring Fork River valley.

Gary Wright, the Kims’ attorney, conferred quickly with his clients and told Stavney they would withdraw their application.

Fisher, who had earlier suggested the proposal was “bassackwards” and was clearly incompatible with the neighborhood, said it would be a “dis-service to the process” not to take a vote.

But, she didn’t make a motion to deny, as she had seemed poised to do moments earlier, and she didn’t press the issue.

Stavney then conceded that he had put himself “in a pickle” by offering the option to withdraw.

But then he told the buzzing crowd “if the applicant wants to withdraw, I’m going to honor that.”

He told the crowd they had gotten what they wanted — there was no approval for a guest ranch and special event business on Missouri Heights — but perhaps not in the way they wanted.

Wright again said his clients would withdraw the application, and that ended the board’s review of the application.

After the meeting, Stavney said he had been focused on the two-tiered nature of the proposal, which included a zoning change and an application for a special use permit.

That lead him, he said, to offer Wright the chance to withdraw his clients’ application — a right they had all along. In hindsight, he conceded it may not have been an ideal way to conclude the meeting.

Attorney Tim Whitsitt, who was working for opponents of the proposal, said after the meeting that he doubted the application would be resubmitted right away, given the length of the process and the obvious stance of both the Eagle County commissioners and the county’s planning and zoning board, which were both unanimous in their rejection of the proposal.

Wright, the attorney for the Kims, said he wasn’t sure what his clients would do next, but that Laura Kim was heartbroken that her vision for her property had been denied and that so many neighbors had staunchly opposed it.

Wright had told the commissioners during the meeting that the perceived impacts of the guest ranch had been exaggerated and that they should consider the actual application, not the emotional opinions of the neighbors.

And Whitsitt, in opposition, had said it was inaccurate for the Kims to say they were going to develop an “agri-tourism” business by providing “farm-to-fork” dinners on their property, pointing out that the only agricultural product they produced was hay.

“It is an event center,” he said of the proposal, and it wouldn’t be a “farm-to-fork” experience “unless they are going to be serving hay.”

Editor’s note: This story was also published in the Aspen Daily News on Wednesday, March 27, 2013.

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