At the center of the uproar over the Centerville Ranch Major Subdivision proposal are two realities: a quiet man with a vision for how to hold on to as much open land as possible, and a stark, but completely legal, choice that could tear the heart out of the county. That ‘tear-the-heart-out’ choice may not be what many Chaffee County residents think it is.
Jeff Ince, who grew up in rural Indiana, cut his teeth on home building and developing in Missouri before heading to Colorado. Forgoing the fast pace of the metro Denver development scene, four years ago he and his brother Jamie began to develop Broadview Subdivision, a 21-lot development spread across a couple hundred acres in Chalk Creek Canyon south of Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort. His brother is building a house there. Jeff Ince prefers the wide open spaces of the Arkansas River Valley.
“I just love this place,” said Ince, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his coat and gazing southeast out across Centerville Ranch; land that as far as the eye could see, is his. “When you look at a plat, you just don’t get a feel for the scale of this place – the size of this. That’s what throws people off – I guess the word for the ranch is sweeping.”
A tour of the historic Centerville Ranch confirmed that scale. It is possible to spend two hours bumping along in a pickup on the snow-covered landscape (not on roads, it should be pointed out) and never leave the property. The scenery is on a majestic scale – views north all the way to Granite and to the south, the Sangre de Cristo Range. To the east lies the rock rim topography of Brown’s Canyon National Monument and to the west to Chalk Creek Canyon and the Collegiate Peaks. On its southeast edge, the ranch contains massive boulder formations and Rawhide Creek. The ranch has natural springs, and is served by two of the county’s historic ditches; the Bowen ditch and the Ehrhart & Bertschey ditch.
The proposed sketch plan for the Centerville Ranch Major Subdivision was originally a 210-lot plan ranging in size from one acre to 8.4 acres, broken into 12 filings, situated on the meandering ridge lines of the 940-acre ranch. Ince bought the property from George and Don Love and Don Weeke in a negotiation that took much of last year.
“I spent a year walking this place, getting to know the terrain, placing the lots for the views, setting them down into places where they won’t be on view,” said Ince. His plan calls for about 500 acres devoted to the lots. The remainder, including the meadow land vistas so appreciated by county residents, he plans to keep in agricultural production. “I placed the lots so the meadows are protected. I’m going to maintain the agricultural land use and run the ranch,” said Ince. “ That’s the goal, to keep the sweep of this place intact and green and producing.”
News of the sketch plan spread like wildfire across the county, eliciting a range of objections during both the planning commission review, which approved the sketch plan to proceed, and again on Feb. 12 when it came before the Chaffee Board of County Commissioners. The volume of public comment and the complexity of the issues to be considered caused the BoCC to continue the public hearing to 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21 at the Chaffee County Fairgrounds.
Issues raised by the public so far include; concerns over the water table on the area which overlays an alluvial water table, worry over lots proposed to be served by private wells and septic system and concerns for the view corridor off the scenic byway. People spoke of the wildlife corridors and the proximity to Brown’s Canyon National Monument. The issue of density came up repeatedly. Several people reminded commissioners that public visioning efforts, including the recent Envision process, have shown that people want the city to stay in the city and the country to remain country.
Ince, who at the end of the Feb. 12 meeting said he was listening carefully to the issues raised by county residents, has already begun to respond. “I had a plan at the county planning offices the next day, reducing the number of lots to 161,” said Ince, who pointed out a size comparison with Mesa Antero, which lies directly west of the Centerville proposal. “You know, most people don’t realize that when you count the lots at Mesa Antero, there are 263 there spread across all the filings.”
Ince’s plans include restoration of the historic ranch buildings (the Ehrhart Family Ranch), including the ranch house, which served as the Centerville Post Office from the 1870s until 1930. The home place also includes a log cabin, paddocks and several outbuildings. “I live here – this isn’t an out-of-town developer. The one walking the land is me,” said Ince.
The sketch plan faces months of local, state and federal hurdles should it be approved to proceed. Ince’s revised sketch plan places most of the rural home lots among the ridges, out of sight along U.S. 285, which is a designated Scenic and Historic Byway. But a set of one-acre lots that Ince has planned for a low ridge just east and slightly south of the convenience store known as the Sugar Shack would be served by an extension of CR 260 to the east (CR 260 currently ends at U.S. 285 just south of the Sugar Shack). Those lots could be seen from U.S. 285.
“I planned those one-acre lots accessible to the road, and as more affordable lots,” said Ince. “Those one-acre lots would be around $50,000, while the large eight-acre lots are going to be upwards of $200,000. But that makes the average lot around $100,000.
While the sketch plan had people asking about the natural corridors connecting the two largest meadow areas that looked small on the plat, Ince said the scale is misleading. Standing on a broad swath more than 120 feet wide between the meadow areas he asked, ”How is this for a wide enough corridor between meadows that are hundreds of acres?”
Asked about the density issue raised by so many, Ince sighed. “When you divide 940 acres by 161 lots, that’s 5.83 acres per home. Even if you do the math with the 500 acres that will be devoted to the lots it’s 3.1 acres per lot. On a ranch this big, how is that density?”
By comparison, during their Feb. 19 council session, Salida City Council approved the rezoning of a 130-lot project on 19.1 acres located at 6507 CR 102, designating it R-4 Manufactured Housing Residential. That translates to a density of 0.147 acres per unit.
Although Ince did not raise it, there is another option in front of him, which is perfectly permissible under state law and the current Chaffee County Land Use Code. And therein lies the ‘tear-your-heart-out-choice.”
Colorado Senate Bill 35, passed in 1972, requires an approval process for subdivisions which create lots smaller than 35 acres, but allows those of 35 acres and above to proceed exempt from subdivision regulation. The impact of that decision has been far-reaching.
According to the Colorado County Perspectives Report on 35-acre subdivision exemption in Colorado published in 2006, that lack of subdivision regulation has increasingly contributed to what is being called “rural sprawl.” The practice is filling open landscapes with homes and utility vehicle garages, but destroying wildlife habitat, native grasses and open landscapes; the very things the bill’s supporters said they wanted to protect.
Those who turn off U.S. 285 to travel the county roads can see the impact of 35-acre lots. Get past the ranch land along the highway on CR 270 traveling toward CR 162 for example, and you see open land being carved up. The view of the valley at night, looking north from the top of the mesa on U.S. 285, shows the lights spreading out across the valley. Much of that light comes from 35-acre lots.
Between 1972 and 2000, 2 million acres of Colorado agricultural land was lost in tracts sized just big enough to avoid subdivision regulations – that is – 35-acre lots. The 2006 report, funded by Colorado rural counties, includes findings from the Environment Colorado Research and Policy Center. It estimates that for every county tax dollar brought in by 35-acre rural lots, they require $1.65 in county infrastructure costs.
“The worst thing Colorado did was set that 35-acre lot size,” said Art Hutchinson. “It carves up the land. What can you do with 35 acres? You can’t ranch it. Noxious weeds take over. It dries up. It’s better to hold on to the open areas, that’s why we did conservation easements (on Hutchinson Ranch).”
The easiest thing for Ince to do, rather than enduring the buzz-saw of the major subdivision process, would be to parcel the Centerville Ranch into 35-acre lots and sell them. Under the current LUC, he has the right to do so without any major approval process. But dividing 940 acres into just under 27-lots of 35-acres would surely not be any closer to the sincere and passionate desire, of a huge number of Chaffee County residents, to maintain the country in the country. In fact, it would replicate what is already occurring on large swaths of county land.
“Yes that would be so much easier,” said Ince quietly. “But this ranch is special. I just can’t see me doing that, so I’m taking the harder road here. I’m sharing what is a 25-year vision. I consider myself local. I want to build my home here on the ranch and I’m staying here.”
Upcoming on Feb. 22: what the Colorado Counties Inc. report, titled County Perspectives A Report on 35-Acre Subdivision Exemption in Colorado, has to say about county management practices that actually preserve open landscapes and reduce rural sprawl.