Carbondale, developer await day in court
Today, all is quiet on 24 acres adjacent to the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale.Gone is the controversy that swirled around the property for two years while residents argued over it at town meetings and developers submitted, withdrew and revised plans.Eventually the town trustees approved a plan for a so-called big-box store over the protests of many of their constituents. The final plan, which was nixed by voters in a July 2003 special election, called for 252,000 square feet of retail development, including a 124,000-square-foot building for a major chain retailer, two “junior” retail spaces and 12 acres of parking.In December 2003, Crystal River Development, the corporation that holds title to the property, filed a petition with district court in Glenwood Springs to “disconnect” the property from the town of Carbondale.According to Eric Gross, attorney for Crystal River Development, his clients want “to be able to use the property in agriculture, and to “use it the way it had historically been used for hay and fall pasture.”The career move from developer to farmer has left some people scratching their heads, wondering if it is a legitimate tax move or a ploy to put the property under the jurisdiction of the development-friendly Garfield County commissioners.”These guys are so unpredictable, it’s hard to know. I don’t know what the endgame is,” Bob Schultz, a consultant who worked for opponents of the big-box project, said.”I’m not even going to speculate,” Garfield County planner Mark Bean said. Bean said of the request to de-annex the property, “It’s a new procedure to me. It’s never happened in Garfield County. Most folks are annexing into the towns.” The district court will hear arguments for and against the petition in February 2005.The property is part of 57 acres annexed to the town in 1979 at the behest of the school. In 1977 the school asked to split 22 acres from the 400 acres it holds, after the town identified that portion as suitable for commercial development.The town of Carbondale will argue against the de-annexation. “Because of its location in town, [the property] is best governed by our zoning, development standards and land-use codes,” said Assistant Town Manager Bentley Henderson.The primary 22-acre parcel is valued at $5,733,160, according to Garfield County appraiser Lisa Gundelfinger.Crystal River Development LLC paid $27,591 last year in property taxes; it was assessed as residential property. By comparison, the owner of 28 irrigated acres in Carbondale used for growing hay last year paid $159 in taxes.Tax on agricultural land is much lower than commercial property simply because “the actual value of the property is less,” said Gundelfinger. The 28-acre hayfield is valued at under $10,000.Next year, without changing the zoning and the use to agricultural, Crystal River Development will pay the rate for vacant commercial land, said Gundelfinger, and that will boost the tax bill to $87,000.But for the developers to get the low tax rate, the land can’t simply look like a farm. “Colorado is a use state,” said Gundelfinger. “They have to demonstrate they’re using the land agriculturally.”That means growing hay or other crops or pasturing cattle – not horses – on the land across Highway 133 from the town.It also means losing much of the value of the land purchased for $5.1 million in 1999.Attorney Gross said he expects the court to adhere to a state statute. “The statute is clear. If it’s farmland and it’s over 20 acres, it can be disconnected.”For now, the county, the town and the developers-cum-farmers await the February decision. If the court sides with Crystal Market Development, Garfield County planners “will have to go back in and rezone,” said Bean.If the land is returned to the county, could developers seek the zoning and development approvals from the county denied them by the town? “Nobody can stop them from asking,” said Bean.Should Crystal Market Development seek to develop the property following a successful de-annexation, its application would be out of Carbondale’s control, with the town government unable to do anything but comment on the plan application.
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