Aspen saddles up for Cozy Point rancher
ASPEN – The operator at Cozy Point Ranch will continue to hold the reins of the city-owned property now that the Aspen City Council has granted the current management a 10-year lease.
The council on Monday voted 4-0 to approve a lease with Monroe Summers, general manager of Cozy Point Ranch LLC, which has held a lease at the 169-acre property at Brush Creek Road and Highway 82 since 2000. Summers’ lease was set to expire in April 2010.
The decision didn’t come without controversy. Red Barn LLC, whose principals are H2J Riding Camp owner Judy Hill Nelson and her business partner, Melissa Wight, fought vigorously to take over the lease.
They’ve maintained for months that Summers and his employees have mismanaged the property by allowing unsafe conditions at the ranch. They also claim Summers has ignored stated land stewardship practices on the dedicated open space and has hid revenue streams from the city.
Supporters of both filled council chambers Monday night, hoping to convince elected officials to choose their respective proposals. There was overwhelming support for Summers and Patti Watson, ranch manager for Cozy Point Ranch LLC.
Prior to the meeting, the council received about 60 e-mails from people supporting the current operations at the facility, and nearly the same amount spoke in favor during the public hearing.
There were fewer than two dozen people who spoke in favor of Red Barn LLC, or against Cozy Point Ranch LLC, because of the perceived unsafe conditions there.
The amount of support for Summers and his operation influenced at least two council members – Steve Skadron and Mayor Mick Ireland.
“That’s a ringing endorsement, and it says a lot,” Ireland said of the number of people who spoke in favor Summers’ operation.
Skadron said he supported Summers’ proposal because of strong public opinion and that it’s more in step with the city’s goal to keep the property a working ranch while also honoring the area’s agricultural heritage. Red Barn’s proposal was based more on equestrian facilities and less on the agricultural activities there, he added.
However, the concerns raised by the Red Barn team and their supporters were enough to convince the council to put stipulations in the new lease that will serve as benchmarks and mandates for Summers to upgrade the facilities and land practices on the ranch. Those will be added to the lease and reviewed by council in the future.
Summers had received approval for a new lease in September 2007, but it wasn’t until last fall that he was scheduled to meet with the council to formally extend the lease. That process was put on hold, and the city earlier this spring conducted a request for proposals. Red Barn, Cozy Point LLC and one outside operator submitted proposals.
A nine-member task force, known as the evaluation committee, was convened to review the proposals and make a recommendation to the council.
The committee voted 7-2 to recommend Cozy Point Ranch LLC because Summers adequately proved his expertise and ability to manage and direct the property’s stewardship, based on documentation and abundant local references, according to Stephen Ellsperman, the city’s parks and open space director.
In a memo to the council, Ellsperman indicated the majority of the committee thought Red Barn LLC’s two principals lacked a proven track record and broad experience in managing open space and a ranching facility. The memo noted that Red Barn LLC is comprised of several paid consultants and suggested that there is risk involved in turning over the property to new management.
The committee also determined that Cozy Point Ranch LLC was able to prove that it can successfully carry out the city’s vision and directives, based on the past nine years of operating the ranch, according to Ellsperman.
The committee felt Red Barn’s focus was geared more toward making it an upscale facility, deviating from the rustic character of the ranch – which members felt was more appropriate and complementary to the ethos of the Roaring Fork Valley’s open space community.
The committee also was more enamored with Cozy Point Ranch LLC’s business plan, as well as their commitment to managing an equine facility, land and ranch operations, and open space.
In contrast, Red Barn’s business model presented the horse boarding operation as paying for the day-to-day expenses of the ranch and caring for the land. The committee and city officials thought that the model left too many uncertainties as to the financial capabilities of the operators should economic conditions or the company’s ownership change, according to Ellsperman.
The Red Barn team earlier this month officially protested the committee and staff’s recommendation to renew Summers’ lease, arguing that they did not receive an objective and fair evaluation in the selection process. They also claimed the committee was biased in favor of Summers’ operation, suggesting the majority of task force members were personally acquainted with Summers or didn’t want to rock the boat because of political considerations.
The Red Barn team also claimed that the task force ignored or discounted their detailed explanations in the proposal, and their guarantee to infuse $141,000 of their own money for capital improvements and generate $1 million in rent over 10 years.
Councilman Derek Johnson said he wasn’t convinced that the Red Barn team could generate that kind of revenue.
Over the past nine years, Summers received rent credits from the city for the capital improvements he’s made to the property, which was in a state of disrepair when he took it over in 2000. To date, Cozy Point Ranch LLC has submitted $199,939 in approved work orders for rent credits. Once that has been paid, Summers will make rent payments to the city. Between $40,000 and $45,000 a year in rent is estimated with Summers’ most recent business plan.
The city has funded an additional $420,686 in capital improvements related to health and safety improvements on the property.
One of the more substantive changes in the lease is how much Cozy Point Ranch LLC will pay the city in rent. The current lease requires Summers to pay 5 percent of annual gross receipts up to $500,000 and 7.5 percent of annual gross receipts over $500,000.
The new lease requires 7.5 percent of annual gross receipts up to $500,000 and 10 percent over $500,000.
According to Cozy Point LLC’s financial statements, the operation in 2008 brought in about $618,000 in income and had $608,000 in expenses. Summers told The Aspen Times earlier this month that his property management company, Summers Properties West Inc., has yet to be reimbursed for a lot of the work done on the ranch, and Cozy Point LLC is a small operation struggling to make ends meet that pays no salary or dividends to its shareholders.
Nelson has relocated the H2J operation from Cozy Point to Aspen Equestrian Estates. Wight also has removed her horses from the ranch.
Wight and Nelson allege their agreements with Cozy Point included a gag clause forbidding them to speak with the city, the public or the media about the conditions at the ranch. All trainers and boarders have the clause written into their agreements.
The so-called gag clause, Summers said, is a stipulation in the agreements designed to settle any differences with the ranch’s management in house and “not to attempt to gain leverage against our positions and policies by going to the press or our landlord or attempting to propagate an internal revolt with gossip and slander,” Summers wrote to city officials last year.
Ireland directed Ellsperman to make sure there are no gag clauses in any future agreements with boarders or trainers at the ranch so if people feel a need to complain they can.
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