In The News

New York Times
October 22, 2006

Where the Front Yard Stretches 1,300 Acres
By Wendy Knight

OF all the attractions at Marabou Ranch, in Steamboat Springs, Colo., Jeff Temple, one of its developers, is most animated about the sharp-tail grouses’ mating grounds. “From April to June each year, about 50 birds come back, so we close off our trails and keep the construction away,” he explained. “We set up a viewing area and go out at daybreak to see them.”

“Open space is disappearing,” he said, sounding more like a conservationist than a real estate developer. But Mr. Temple, a fourth-generation Steamboat resident whose father founded the Steamboat Ski Resort, sees a larger picture. “Here, we’re creating a legacy for our kids and grandkids.”

Mr. Temple and his partners at Due West Land Ltd., which owns the property, have preserved in perpetuity 1,300 of the ranch’s 1,700 acres. On the remaining land, they have created 62 lots — what he calls “homesteads” — of 7 to 10 acres, priced at $2 million to $4 million apiece.

“If we’re doing this right, each of our buyers can say they bought a 1,700-acre ranch,” he said.

Marabou, which sits along the Elk River, is among a widening group of expensive developments in Western states that are preserving land.

Moonlight Basin in Big Sky, Mont., is another development group that practices what is known as “constraint-based development.” In 1992, it bought 25,000 acres in Montana’s southwestern corner, much of it slicing through federally protected wilderness areas. Before the developers brought in an excavation crew, they conducted environmental assessments, according to a spokesman, Rich Hohne. “Then we put together a big map and said, ‘O.K., these are the areas we’re staying away from.’ ”

Individual buyers have legally ceded the half the land for conservation; the developers expect to put an additional 30 percent in protected status.

At Marabou, Mr. Temple said, the developers decided not to place homesites along the Elk River or on the ridgelines, locations that would have reaped handsome profits. “From a business perspective, this was risky,” he said.

“We’ve said to potential buyers: ‘You can’t have a home on the edge of the river. That’s for everybody,’ ” he said. “Many of our owners are successful entrepreneurs used to running their own show. If you tell them they can’t build their dream house, you risk turning them off, and away.”

But the conservation ethos has not deterred buyers. Since the 62 homesteads were put on sale early this year, 7 have sold, 9 are under contract and 11 have been reserved.

“It’s an incredible piece of property,” said David Rayner, a communications executive from Denver, who bought a nine-acre parcel for $2.65 million this summer.

“The fly fishing on the Elk River is quality,” he said. A passionate fly fisherman, he has been casting on the river with his son, Michael, 18, throughout the summer and fall.

In 2001, he and his wife, Cheryl, bought a 70-acre lot at Storm Mountain Ranch, a 1,000-acre development that was Mr. Temple’s first in Steamboat. After four years, the Rayners sold the lot at a 40 percent profit. They plan to build at Marabou once the infrastructure is “a little further along,” Mr. Rayner said.

The planning process for these low-density developments is lengthy. Mr. Temple estimated that it took an extra year to work out the details with Routt County officials, who supported the conservation approach. Like Moonlight Basin, Marabou consulted wildlife biologists, agriculturists and others to create a master plan that would protect wildlife habitats and support ranching.

Potential buyers at Marabou are handed a 137-page design-review checklist that contains stipulations about everything from appliances (which must be energy efficient) to exterior light fixtures (which cannot exceed 25 watts) and landscaping (native vegetation is encouraged).

“You have to strike a balance between the amount of open space the county or city wants and the number of homesites that make the project economically feasible for the developer,” said Greg Hills, a partner in Double Bar X Ranch in Aspen, which is developing 13 sites on 124 acres. The lots there range from 2 to 35 acres and sell for $4.5 million to $13 million each.

Pitkin County, which includes Aspen, Colo., has some of the most stringent land-use policies in the country, Mr. Hills said. When developers subdivide larger parcels, they must cluster the houses and set aside areas for open space and moderate-income housing.

Because it is in Aspen proper, the Double Bar X benefits from rules that permit owners to build 10,000-square-foot homes while regulations elsewhere in Pitkin County limit home sizes to 5,750 square feet.

Yet it is the big sky, not the big house, that has clinched the deal for many buyers at Double Bar X.

“The drama of the site is terrific,” said a 43-year-old real estate developer and investor who bought a two-acre lot at Double Bar X Ranch for $4.5 million and who, like many buyers in the exclusive parts of Aspen, would speak only if his name was not used. From what would be his front porch, he looks “down valley” at the Maroon Creek. Behind him to the east is town, and across the ravine to the south lie the ski mountains.

Simply because land remains undeveloped does not mean it is unused.

“One great way to preserve open space is to produce food on the land,” Mr. Temple said. Marabou expects to produce 200 tons of hay a year, most of which the homeowners association will sell. Some will be used as feed for the 55 head of cattle and 15 horses on the property.

Marabou continues a long tradition of ranching in Steamboat Springs. To avoid overgrazing the land, ranchers rotate the cattle through different paddocks, a process known as “intensive grazing” because of the extra work needed to move them.

When he is not herding cattle at Marabou Ranch, Chad Bedell, a former world champion steer wrestler, saddles up the horses at the development’s barn and equestrian center and rides with owners on the 12 miles of trails. Mr. Bedell is one of five full-time employees whose principal duty is to show residents the art of fun.

Other master guides available to Marabou residents include Abi Slingsby, the Colorado state champion in cross-country mountain biking and Todd Lodwick, an Olympic Nordic skier and ski jumper who has won 17 national titles.

“We’re avid skiers, so we’re really looking forward to these services,” Mr. Rayner said of his family. Mrs. Rayner and the couple’s daughter, Lauren, 13, also plan to go horseback riding on the property.

Unobstructed views and outdoor recreation are not the only reasons that developers in many Western states leave land untouched.

A critical consideration for Moonlight Basin is preserving wildlife corridors and habitats. It hired Marc Glines, a former Montana state game warden and national park ranger, as the full-time director of wildlife security. To help create a master plan, Mr. Glines said he conducted a game analysis to identify “sensitive areas for game migration routes and calving areas that should not be built upon or traversed across.”

He estimated that there were 85 species of mammals in the Moonlight ecosystem, including bighorn sheep and grizzly bears. A few weeks ago, Moonlight initiated a 10-year project that will record the animals on the property — how many, what type and how they use the land. “We think this will be a model for future wilderness development,” he said.