Golf course splits ranch family

  • Cows graze near one of the first houses built on the Gray Ranch

    Cindy Wehling

Note: this feature article is one of several in a special issue about growth and planning in the West.

CARBONDALE, Colo. - Disagreements about how to plan for growth have reached into a ranching family here.

"I'm retiring anyway, and ... you can't divide land equitably (among the heirs), but you can divide cash," says Bob Perry, who with his wife, Ruth, owns the Sopris Ranch outside of town.

The Perrys have signed a contract to sell 125 of their 400 irrigated acres to a California developer who wants to build a golf course. The development would also feature 685 housing units and completely take over the adjacent Gray Ranch, which the Perrys now lease for grazing.

"If you're going to live in a pretty place, you're going to have people," says Ruth Perry, whose family first brought cows to the Sopris Ranch in 1929. "We've had over 50 years of ranching here, and a wonderful golf course would be a nice addition to the town."

Marge Perry, Bob's and Ruth's daughter, has a different vision for the family ranch and other historical ranches in the area - keeping the land intact in large pieces through deals with governments or conservation trusts preserving open space.

A golf course, says Marge Perry, is "a ridiculous waste of space." Rather than just give in to development pressures, she believes, "You can do your best to slow the growth down."

Agricultural land around here once produced beef and potatoes for local coal miners. Now, with Aspen a half-hour drive away, land is a luxury selling for $15,000 an acre on up.

"The nicest thing would be to maintain the traditional use as a working cattle ranch," says Lew Ron Thompson, who was born on the Gray Ranch but sold out to an investor. "It's not economically sound to run an $800 cow and a $400 calf on $15,000-per-acre land."

The Gray Ranch golf course development, along with three other proposed developments, would more than double the population of this town of 3,100. Town Planner Mark Chain opposed the Gray Ranch golf course, but the developer, Bob Howard of San Francisco, Calif., lined up four of the town's six trustees in support, seemingly guaranteeing the $27 million project will break ground next spring.

Bob Perry says he'd rather see a golf course than more dense development on the ranchland (the Gray Ranch property was zoned for nearly twice as many houses as Howard proposes to build). The golf course, Bob Perry says, will be a practical version of open space and will perserve some of the rural feel.

Bob Perry says one reason he agreed to sell was the threat of stringent zoning regulations such as those already in place in Aspen's Pitkin County. That might lock up his property and decrease its value, he says. "You can't stop growth unless you take away property rights."

The younger generation is split, with Marge Perry's six brothers and sisters supporting their parents' decision to sell off some of the family ranch to the developer, and Marge and her husband, Bill Fales, opposing the sale and trying to keep their 260-acre ranch viable. "The golf course is like a gas can thrown on the explosive growth in the valley," Fales told the town trustees. Fales predicts that the golf course will only spur already increasing land values and taxes and force ranchers out even faster.

Last spring Fales lured Stephen Small, a tax lawyer from Boston who wrote both the U.S. tax law on easements and the book Preserving Family Lands, to deliver a talk to the Holy Cross Cattleman's Association near Carbondale.

Small told the ranchers that he understood they don't like to be told what to do with their land. "But if you care about your land you have to do some planning," Small said. "Landowners put easements on their land for three reasons. They love their land, they love their land, and they love their land."

Bob Perry, who attended Small's talk, says he might consider placing some of his land in an easement, but he remains skeptical. "I don't see the easement man knocking on the door with a check."

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