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In a move that appeared to surprise and delight Chaffee County Commissioners, the Central Colorado Conservancy CCC), together with the owner Jeff Ince, presented the Centerville Ranch Conservation Easement Plan to the county Tuesday morning: a plan that preserves in perpetuity some 70 percent of the historic Centerville Ranch as working lands. The vast easement area totals 650 acres of the 950-acre ranch. That first look for the commissioners was followed by a separate public presentation Tuesday evening in Poncha Springs.

“This is a win for the community, a win for the resource on the property and a win for the landowner,” said commissioner Greg Felt. “We struck a pretty good balance there.”

The Centerville Ranch conservation easement would be done through a land trust that purchases the development rights for the land, a legal agreement that both protects the land in perpetuity while compensating the landowner for the development rights. In this case, Ince has agreed to donate half of the $2.6 million value of the development rights (yet to be appraised). His $1.3 million would be matched by a $1.3 million purchase from combined sources, $100,000 from local seed funding, and $1.2 million through grants. This is significantly below the value of the 650-acre easement, whose full, built-out value is estimated to be $4 to $5 million.

“This is a win-win,” said CCC Board President Cindy Williams. “It takes the sketch plan density from 133 lots down to 59 lots along the northern side of the ranch, and this represents a 55 percent decrease in density.”

The easement option seeks to balance growth and conservation, according to Williams, who explained that the plan not only protects critical wildlife habitat, but it ties the three water rights in perpetuity to the land; two ditch rights and a spring that surfaces as Rawhide Creek in the southeastern corner of the ranch. It allows the conservation easement to continue as irrigated agricultural production and maintains the critical groundwater recharge for the areas.

While maintaining working agricultural lands, the conservation easement plan would also include another public benefit; a recreational area running along the southern portion of the ranch to connect through an eight-foot-wide section of land that overlaps with Bureau of Land Management lands.

Situated along the Collegiate Peaks National Scenic Byway, the major subdivision proposal for the  Centerville Ranch has been the subject of extensive objections from county residents for a variety of concerns. The new plan reduces the number of residential lots from the original proposed 210 lots down to just 59; spread across some 300 acres. All the lots will now be situated along the northern ridges and tucked behind topography away from the scenic byway.

“The vision is to grow smarter – keep the things we love about Chaffee County while we grow,” said Williams.

Not only does the proposed Centerville Ranch conservation easement absorb the southern portion of the ranch, including its sprawling meadow land, it includes the ridge lines where 74 proposed lots will now never be built out. Instead, the proposed lot area will become a public recreation area, a trail connecting to the BLM land.

“Not only does this add a wonderful recreation area, but there is also a cottonwood stand on the triangle of land that actually falls on the west side of U.S. 285, where the elk stage and they cross from west to east,” said Williams. “Now it will be protected.” She noted that Colorado Parks and Wildlife Salida District Manager Jim Aaregon envisions access into the BLM land, but with winter closures, to protect the wildlife winter range.

“It’s a cool place to walk,” said Williams. “It could also be tied into the Browns Canyon (National Monument) area.”

CCC Executive Director Andrew Mackie said “We hope to raise the community seed money ($100,000) by the end of summer. We want the local contribution in place to go after the larger grants. The earlier we reach that goal, the sooner we can do the grant work to close on this easement. Right now we are aiming for 2020.”

Ince reassured the commissioners that 2020 is not a hard and fast deadline in the legal agreement. “I’m prepared to wait as long as we need – the agreement gives us extra time, to 2022.”

That latitude is important, Mackie explains. “We are competing with projects from all around Colorado for the grants, so we might need that time.”

Williams and Mackie stressed that the CCC is solely focused on the conservation easement, not the Centerville Ranch Major Subdivision proposal. That private development project will proceed on the development path, on the roughly 300 remainder acres.

“There are two parallel tracks here – they are interrelated, but separate,” said Felt. “We’ll do our job to continue to respond to his project. At the same time, speaking for myself, I’m pretty excited at what you all have put together, we may look back on this as one of those watershed moments in our county. We took things to another level to try to ensure the destiny for this county that many of us hope for.”

The morning of the easement plan hearing, the commissioners had already approved the resolution allowing the sketch plan to proceed to preliminary plat. That approval was predicated with extensive conditions that must be met first. That approval will now trigger dozens of agency reviews, designed to assess impacts on the land, the water, the wildlife, the environment, the viewsheds and dozens of other impact areas.

Discussion prior to the vote centered on the reason why commissioners had not called out Colorado 1041 regulations in their conditions. Invoking the 1041 statutes gives local governments additional authority for planning decisions related to areas or activities of statewide concern, wildlife being a statewide concern.

Felt explained that the approval of the sketch plan is itself the signal that triggers dozens of state agencies to provide input into a project. Based on that response, often more in-depth and specialized studies may then be required. Ince confirmed that he has hired a hydrologist and a soils expert to prepare in-depth studies.

Commissioners unanimously approved the motion by Commissioner Rusty Granzella, which was seconded by Felt. Commissioner Keith Baker made a point of clarifying his decision not to second the motion, but to vote to approve the plan and work collaboratively as a commissioner.

“We came up with a robust set of conditions, our expectations are laid out,” said Baker. “As I said, our chair asked me ‘even though you are opposed, will you work with us to make it the best proposal we can?’ I work for the best possible outcome, and that is what we came up with for conditions. I voted to support the resolution as we crafted it, and I will vote to support it again.”

Those who would like to make a tax-deductible donation by contacting Andrew@centralcoloradoconservancy.org or send a check earmarked for Centerville to the Central Colorado Conservancy, PO Box 942 • Salida, CO 81201.