Local land-use plan sabotaged by state

  • Enchantment Private Home Sites, No Hunting (sign)

    Warren Cornwall
  • A barn stands in front of the contested Emerald Mountain

    Warren Cornwall

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - At night the lights of Steamboat Springs rise up from the Yampa River Valley by the thousands, advancing east toward Mount Werner like a small army laying siege to the ski lifts. At the eastern edge of town they end abruptly, running up against the dark mass of Emerald Mountain. The state of Colorado owns most of the sprawling mountain, which is why it has remained the domain of cows, hunters and mountain bikers. But the Colorado State Land Board, which oversees a 6,900-acre chunk of the mountain, now says it may sell part of it for development.

Talk of new subdivisions has not gone down well with locals bent on preserving open space and agriculture around Steamboat.

Opposition springs from many sources: Some residents fear losing backdoor access to recreation; taxpayers worry about footing the bill for services for more new residents; ranchers who run cattle on Emerald Mountain fear their grazing leases would be lost; and county officials charge that development would undermine their ongoing effort to protect open space throughout the county.

Underlying the opposition is hostility toward the state, which is viewed as an outsider. "There's people that disagree with how many cows and bicycles should be run on the mountain," says Ellen Crain, a Routt County planner. "But they all hate the state land board more."

Crain charges the board with trying to profit from real estate prices driven up by county and private efforts to protect land from development. "They are reaping the profits off the back of private property owners," she says.

Because the impact of new subdivisions could extend beyond state-land boundaries, Crain also fears a domino effect: ranchers selling off land in the face of development next door.

Rancher Jim Stanko, who runs cattle on 1,000 acres of Emerald Mountain, says he plans to sell 700 acres of his land if nearby land becomes ranchettes. "I would be a total fool if I didn't start putting houses up right alongside them," he says.

Why is the state acting as a developer when its governor, Roy Romer, has been meeting with rural people all year to tout "smart growth'? The state land board occupies a difficult position. It is pulled in different directions by the governor (who appoints the three full-time commissioners), communities living next to state land, and the state constitution's requirement that the board "maximize benefits' from its holdings to support public education. Colorado school lands currently earn $25 million per year, around 1 percent of the annual education budget.

Commissioner Bob Mailander, a Romer appointee serving his first full six-year term, says that ignoring development would shortchange that constitutional mandate. "That's where you make the money in this deal," he says. "We're not here to be popular."

On Emerald Mountain, the state brings in $27,000 a year from grazing and hunting leases, a far cry from the $6 million-$7 million Mailander estimates it is worth as real estate. He also stresses the independence of the land board from the governor: "Roy Romer cannot tell the land board to sell or not to sell land."

Maxine Stewart, appointed as president of the commission by Romer earlier this year, strikes a more conciliatory tone. "We are not in a big rush to do anything there (Emerald Mountain)." But she echoes Mailander's attention to money. "We need to look at what the potential is as far as revenues," she says, and that includes development.

At a meeting in early November, the land board unveiled three options for earning more money from Emerald Mountain. The plans all included residential development, and ranged from an option to sell the whole block to the highest bidder, to a "multiple-use" plan accommodating grazing, recreation and development. All three commissioners favor the multiple-use plan, which Mailander describes as a "holistic" approach that builds on county planning efforts.

That's not how county planners see it.

"There's absolutely no reflection of the community's planning in this," says Marty Zeller, an expert in conservation planning and a consultant to Routt County. He says the study fails to discuss how subdivisions could be made compatible with current uses, or how much land would actually be developed. "They've done such a superficial analysis," says Zeller, "that it's very hard to draw any conclusions from this."

Controversy surrounded Emerald Mountain well before the state started talking about it. Conflicts between ranchers and mountain bikers led to the formation of the Emerald Mountain Planning Group early this year. The group has worked on a compromise management plan that includes continued grazing, public hunting, recreation, but no residential development. Stanko, a member of the group, says the new land board proposal has disrupted their work. "Had we been left alone, it could almost be in place now."

Mailander has little sympathy for arguments against development, accusing locals of exploiting the issue. Stanko, he says, would probably sell his property regardless of what the state does. "He's using Emerald Mountain as an excuse to go ahead and sell the property," says Mailander.

Cashing in on growth

Talk of state-driven development here raises concerns that state land sales could be the wave of the future near many Colorado resorts. That has already happened near McCoy, Colo., in southern Routt County, 30 miles from Vail. With a private developer as a go-between, the state sold nine of 18 lots of 35 acres each at a subdivision called Enchantment Mesa.

Developers have since approached the land board about two 640-acre parcels 10 miles north of Steamboat in the Elk Valley, right where private land preservation efforts have taken hold (see lead story). "You can draw a 20-mile radius around any cultural center with an airport, and those are the hot spots," says Zeller.

The problem, Zeller says, has as much to do with the attitude of the state land board as with fiscal pressures. With intelligent planning the state could increase revenues without selling off lands, but he says, "There is such an appalling lack of understanding of development at the land board."

Communication between the land board and counties has been poor, admits land-board commissioner Maxine Stewart. "I think sometimes the county was the last to know," she says. But the board, she says, is trying to remedy that with a new management plan requiring closer work with counties and federal agencies. Those reforms should be in place early next year.

Where does Gov. Roy Romer, who appointed the land board, stand? He'd like the board to change course, according to aides, and in a constitutional amendment he's drafting, revenues from the state lands would be balanced by other considerations such as open space, agriculture and wildlife. His proposal might also set aside 10 percent of state lands for protection. That amendment could come before Colorado voters in 1996, says Jim Lochhead, head of the state's Department of Natural Resources. In the meantime, Romer says that until the board's management plan is in place, he won't sign new sales without county approval.

Mailander says the governor's moratorium won't have any effect on the Enchanted Mesa sales or Emerald Mountain. He calls the governor's claims that maximizing revenues causes problems "bullshit." Any amendment, he adds, would weaken the board's ability to raise funds for the schools. Stewart says she doesn't have strong opinions about the amendment, and John Wilkes, the third commissioner, declined to comment.

Before "For Sale" signs appear on Emerald Mountain, local critics of the land board could get a chance to prove their theory that the state can make enough money without subdivisions. The land board has encouraged the local planning group to come up with its own plan. Crain believes it can be done with recreation leases - trail passes for mountain bikers and skiers - and leases for hunters and ranchers. Stanko agrees: "If everyone is willing to pay, this can work."

Warren Cornwall is an HCN intern.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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