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A Community Quest Carries on the Yampa Valley’s Open Landscape
by Jennie Lay

Good development and an outstanding landscape make Steamboat Springs an ideal backdrop for a group of conservation-minded professionals to gather. The Urban Land Institute and EDAW, the world’s largest land and environment-based planning firm, agreed wholeheartedly when choosing Steamboat to host a prestigious, first-ever conservation development symposium in 2005.

Turns out, it’s not just Champagne Powder® that makes Steamboat famous. A history of smart developments that help save open space and protect the rural landscape is making the Yampa Valley a highly respected standard-bearer for developers, planners and conservation professionals around the country.

“It’s one of the most beautiful places in Colorado and it deserved better,” local conservation developer Jeff Temple told the crowd, reflecting on what might have become of the valley if massive developments had run rampant. One giant 1970s proposal at the base of Rabbit Ears Pass planned 2,000 homes, six bridges across Walton Creek and a 40-acre shopping center. Instead, Mr. Temple put conservation easements and a few homes on that land – and he credits the like-minded efforts of other conservation developers and thoughtful planners for helping keep the local landscape so special. “It’s still a cowboy agricultural town. Now it’s made it more special.”

Alas, the professionals came to Steamboat. They saw. And they gawked ever so appreciatively — at local conservation developments, at the wide open Yampa Valley floor that edges town, at the progressive planning incentives designed to protect the area’s big agricultural landscapes.

“Many local governments make it impossible to do the right thing,” marvels Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. While green developments regularly outperform conventional developments in the marketplace, he says, many cities fail to institute the kind of progressive planning that Steamboat and Routt County have created. Instead, they end up with zoning that fosters little more than suburban sprawl. “When you’re afraid to say no to anything, you get the worst of everything,” Mr. McMahon says.

Routt County created its first master plan in 1980. Subsequent community plans have repeatedly prescribed dense development inside Steamboat with a strong emphasis on preserving open, agricultural lands outside the city. In hopes of diverting sprawl from 35-acre subdivisions, a legal option in Colorado that doesn’t require county oversight, Routt County instituted a Land Preservation Subdivision (LPS) option in 1992. An LPS requires careful planning and design restraints and allows developers to add extra density if they cluster development and keep more contiguous open space.

“We’re proud to be going through the (LPS) process,” Mr. Temple told the conservation development symposium in 2005. Temple sold out his highly successful Storm Mountain Ranch conservation development at the base of Rabbit Ears Pass several years ago. That project included 14 meticulously planned home sites with 793 acres of haymeadows and pristine natural areas in conservation easements. But now he is developing the 1,797-acre Marabou Ranch in the Elk River Valley as an LPS project with 62 secluded home sites and 1,352 acres of open haymeadows and natural areas along two miles of the Elk River. These projects take extra land planning time, including things like extensive wildlife and wetlands assessments, Mr. Temple explains, but he says it’s the kind of attention to detail that his community deserves.

As of January 2006, 17 developments had applied or finished going through the county’s LPS process. That’s more than 12,000 acres in developments, with almost 9,000 of those acres in undeveloped open space “remainder parcels.”

But the community didn’t stop there. In 1996, Routt County voted to institute a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program, whereby property tax dollars go toward working with willing landowners to acquire and extinguish future development rights. In 2005, voters not only renewed the tax, but overwhelmingly voted to raise the levy rate and extend it for another 20 years. The PDR program has already helped place more than 7,400 acres in conservation easements to date — permanently protecting many of the Yampa Valley’s historic ranches and signature landscapes. Thousands more acres are lined up for the popular conservation program.

“If you’re going to do development, it’s the best of all possible worlds,” says Rod Hanna, president of Sidney Peak Ranch, a conservation development at the south end of the valley with lush haymeadows and panoramic views. Each one of the 14 lots on Sidney Peak Ranch includes title to 40 to 50 acres, but all the land except an 8- to 10-acre building envelope is within a 1,359-acre agricultural conservation easement that preserves the open space forever. It’s a chance to be part of a ranch without having to fix fence and take care of a barn and livestock. Mr. Hanna says he’s grateful the Yampa Valley won’t look like Edwards, the Vail Valley’s version of suburban sprawl: “Yes, we’re going to have growth, but sprawl is difficult to happen here.”