Commissioner has questions about Turnbull land approvals
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Longtime local ranchers Roz and Tom Turnbull may face a hostile group of county commissioners later this week
Commissioner Jack Hatfield said Friday he may reopen the subdivision application for the family’s ranch along Prince Creek and the Crystal River, even though it had appeared to be a done deal. (A letter from the Turnbulls starts on page 9.)
Hatfield is bothered by what he considers deceptiveness by the Turnbulls and their lawyer, Aspen attorney Gideon Kaufman, during a hearing last month when the Turnbulls requested long-term vesting, which protects the Turnbulls and future landowners from zoning changes for a set period of time, and exemption from the county’s affordable housing mitigation requirement.
Hatfield voted in favor of 20-year vesting, 17 years longer than the standard vesting period for development applications, and the affordable housing exemption. He said he came away from the hearing with two distinct impressions ? the Turnbulls intended to remain on the ranch and had no plans to develop large homes on their ranch in the near future.
Both those facts, it turns out, are true, just not quite in the way Hatfield expected.
Shortly after the Turnbulls got what they asked for, they announced plans to sell most of their 2,500 acres to billionaires Les and Abigail Wexner. The Turnbulls and Kaufman say as far as they know, the Wexners, who own retail clothiers The Limited and The Gap, have no intention ? or need, given their wealth ? to develop the property at all.
Nevertheless, Hatfield’s wondering if he and his colleagues have been played for fools.
“My impression was they didn’t have some guy in their hip pocket ready to buy one of those lots,” he said. “Now that I hear someone was lined up to buy at least one of those lots all along ? I’m considering reconsideration.”
Mat Turnbull, Roz and Tom’s son, said the sale was made only after his family was confident that the Wexners shared their vision for the property.
“The commissioners’ vesting enabled another family to say, ‘Fine, we don’t have to develop it because we have long-term rights,'” Mat Turnbull said. “What was good for our family is good for their family.”
Mat said he moved back to his family’s remaining holdings ? a few hundred acres in the Crystal River Valley ? in August, after living elsewhere for several years, to operate the cattle and cutting horse operations the Wexners say they want.
“That’s the only reason I was interested in staying here,” Mat, who owns ranches in Hotchkiss and Grand Junction, said of the Wexners’ vision for the land.
“The goal,” he added, “was to pass the ranch to somebody who would not develop it into 35-acre lots.”
Hatfield has asked the county attorney for advice about whether he can reopen the hearings, and he expects to act on it by Wednesday afternoon at the county commissioners’ regular meeting.
Last spring, in the middle of the ongoing and at times openly hostile debate about how to limit sprawling residential development on large ranches, the Turnbulls parceled out their property among family members and then jointly submitted a development application.
Using a provision in the county land-use code that allows large homes on parcels of 500 acres or more, they received approval to divide the upper plateau of their ranch, which straddles the hills dividing the Crystal River and West Maroon Creek, into five residential lots ? five 500-acre lots with approval for 15,000-square-foot homes and one 300-acre lot with approval for a 5,750-square-foot home.
After the proposal was approved last spring, the Turnbulls pressed the county for a 20-year vesting of the property. Kaufman and planning consultant Glenn Horn also pointed out that affordable housing hadn’t been required as part of the Wildcat subdivision approval, the last major development involving 500-acre lots. That argument played well with Hatfield, who has been reluctant to veer away from past practices when it comes to land-use approvals.
Hatfield now says he feels he’s been deceived by Kaufman and the Turnbulls. In particular, he points to a statement Kaufman made in the second week of September:
“We’re not going to sit here and say that there will be no development on this property for 20 years. I think what we’re saying is that there are five family members in on it, and the intention is to not put any kind of pressure on us to have to develop it within that time frame.
“There is no intention in putting 15,000-square-foot houses on this particular property, but I think they would like to have the comfort level of knowing that if nothing happens for 10 year or 15 years, or whatever the time line is, that no one has to rush out to do anything,” he continued. “And this is a perfect example of that kind of protection that benefits everybody.”
Hatfield said he thought Kaufman’s comments made it clear that there were no plans to develop in the near future. He was also disturbed that they were not more forthright about what was going on.
Kaufman maintains he never deceived Hatfield, and that indeed his comment above reflects exactly what the Turnbulls and the Wexners were working toward.
“I made a very definitive statement at the meeting that the land would be bound by the approval as long as the Turnbulls owned it, and by whoever owned it after them,” Kaufman said. “I think what we did was right, and I stand by my statement.”
He added that the application involved five separate owners ? Roz and her four children ? any one of whom could have pulled their name and land out and developed it on their own.
In an Oct. 3 letter announcing the sale of the ranch, Roz and Tom Turnbull said they were both in their 60s and ready to leave ranching, so they sought out a buyer who would keep the land in agriculture.
“The Wexners are excited about the ranch, and it is a wonderful solution for our family,” they wrote. “We get to see this beautiful land that we have worked so hard to protect and take care of continue as a working ranch.”
They also point out that Mat will be managing the ranch for the Wexners, who have promised upgrades to the irrigation system and other ranch infrastructure.
“According to the Turnbulls’ letter, what everyone had hoped was going to happen to the property is going to happen,” Kaufman said “We shouldn’t lose sight of that.”
Kaufman also questioned the idea of reopening a land-use matter simply because there had been a change in ownership. “Does land-use approval go to land or to people? I always thought land use was about land use, not people use,” Kaufman said.
Hatfield said he doesn’t plan to open the letter from the Turnbulls until he’s had more time to consider the matter.
“It turns out all the Turnbulls did was lock in their land-use approvals for 20 years ? they protected themselves on the backside from changes in zoning,” Hatfield said. “I went for that, with the understanding that there was no rush to develop this.”
And if they want to keep Hatfield from trying to undo the vesting and affordable housing exemption, they’re going to have to convince him that there is indeed no rush.
Aspen’s Fourth of July festivities came to a close after the sun had set on Monday with a laser light show.
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