Agricultural use planned, barn approved by county
[ By Katherine Nettles ]
Bulldozers, excavators and other heavy construction equipment have caught the eye of many drivers and bikers along Highway 135 just south of Crested Butte South over the last couple months, as the large parcel of land east of the highway has undergone some changes that have troubled neighbors as well. The parcel, which was formerly owned by the Allen family and changed hands last year, was approved by Gunnison County for certain developments like construction of an agricultural barn, but the new landowner was issued a stop order this month for removing an excess of construction materials from the property without a permit. He is also navigating a conservation easement (CE) held by the Crested Butte Land Trust on part of the property.
Hunter Family Real Estate Ltd. owns the 520+ acre parcel of land, described in Gunnison County records as south of Allen Homesites and CB South. Stewart Hunter communicated with the Crested Butte News via e-mail, confirming that his family bought the ranch one year ago and intends to continue using the land primarily for agricultural purposes. “We are making various agricultural improvements, and we may make other residential improvements in the future,” wrote Hunter. “We live in the valley, and I have been in ranching most of my life.”
Hunter confirmed that 180 acres of the parcel are in a conservation easement with the CB Land Trust and that an additional 360 acres are not in any easement. A barn is approved for construction within the CE portion of the property, but residential development is not.
According to Cathie Pagano, assistant county manager for Community and Economic Development, Hunter submitted an agricultural exemption request for the construction of a barn structure described as 82 x 64 feet with a total square footage calculated at 5,727 square feet, including a loft and covered side area at 180 Upper Allen Road in June 2022. Her office found the exemption to be compliant with county standards and approved it in July “for the storage and maintenance of ranch equipment, gear, feed and cattle immunization/castration, and branding equipment located on the agricultural operation,” according to the approval notice.
“Gunnison County regulations allow exemptions for road construction permits, building permits, access permits, and disturbance of ground for properties and/or structures that meet the definition of an agricultural operation and/or an agricultural structure,” wrote Pagano in a statement.
However, Gunnison County issued a stop work order and notice of violation this month to Hunter for work outside those parameters. Pagano explained that “the removal of more than 350 cubic yards of material on the property,” is a level of land disturbance that requires an administrative review land use change permit, and although the property owner has since submitted the required administrative review application, county staff has not yet reviewed it.
In a letter to Hunter dated September 9, 2022, Gunnison County senior land use planner Rachel Sabbato wrote, “These parcels have been approved for agricultural exemption in coordination with the conservation easement held by CB Land Trust and big game management by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The use of the parcels for anything other than what is defined as agriculture or agricultural structure is prohibited per the Gunnison County Land Use Resolution (LUR) definition of each.” Sabbato cited that according to the Land Use Resolution, “Road cutting or construction and maintenance of a road that provides access solely for an agricultural operation shall be permitted.
“It appears from the heavy machinery and other miscellaneous construction materials on site that this parcel is being used to support extraction of construction materials that generates more than 300 cubic yards,” she continued. “This has been confirmed in the letter received from Tyler Harpel dated September 1, 2022. Use of the property for extracting construction materials of more than 300 cubic yards is not exempt under the agricultural exemption permit.
“All activity at this excavation site is required to stop immediately until this permit is issued,” continued Sabbato. In compliance with the LUR, Sabbato described that a review fee of $3,054 would also be assessed, in addition to the necessary administrative review application fee.
Pagano said her office did not have specific information on the CE on one portion of the property, “But we are aware that there is an easement on the property and that the CB Land Trust holds the easement,” she said.
CB Land Trust executive director Jake Jones said that he has been in touch with Hunter somewhat during the past year, but that this is fairly new territory for the Land Trust.
“This was conserved in 1997 by the Allen family,” explains Jones. “It was conserved as a historic working landscape. The property owner has retained a number of rights within the agricultural conservation easement for agricultural purposes.”
Jones believes that change is what people are reacting to. There is the presence of heavy construction equipment, slash piles and there have also been large berms constructed on the property that now obstruct the views of several neighbors. Some of those neighbors have contacted both the county and the Land Trust expressing their dismay.
“I’ve heard from numerous neighbors to the property seeking clarification on what can and cannot be done on the property. To me it’s really important to define the authority of the Land Trust in protecting the conservation easement versus the county’s permitting process and, in this case, agricultural exemption to the land use code,” said Jones.
“Conservation easements are complex; they are unique to each property,” he added. “The Land Trust takes their responsibility to protect our conservation easements very seriously and we also work hard with property owners to protect private property rights.”
Jones says that to his knowledge, no property owners have ever violated a conservation easement violation the Land Trust. “The ranches that we have in conservation are with historic landowners. This is the first time that anything like this has happened, for a ranch to have changed hands and the vision for that property to have changed,” he said.
Each CE has its own legal wording, of course, and Jones emphasized that he has not observed easement violations on the property. But if conflict were to arise, the Land Trust has general steps in place to address it. The first step, said Jones, is to give notification of a violation, then to make efforts to resolve the issue. If the issue is not resolved through those initial efforts, then it would go to mediation, and if that was not successful a final step would be litigation. “We’ve never been in the position, to my knowledge, to have to litigate to defend the terms of a conservation easement,” reiterated Jones.
Hunter did not comment on the stop order or the details of any developments on his property such as roads or berms, but he did comment on the prominent event tent that was set up for the past few weeks. He said it was for a family party and then a wedding. County staff said there was no issue there as the county requires special event permits for events with more than 50 vehicles or 200 people, however weddings and funerals (that are not part of a commercial operation) are exempt from the permit requirements.