County commissioners to review controversial W/J Ranch in new year |

County commissioners to review controversial W/J Ranch in new year

After several months of delays, the latest owner of the W/J Ranch is scheduled to pitch his development plans to the Pitkin County commissioners.And if history is any hint, the hearing in the next month or so will be emotional, controversial and perhaps include threats and shouts.The W/J Ranch is a 235-acre property that straddles the line between the tiny McClain Flats neighborhood and the less homogeneous Woody Creek neighborhood.For decades it was owned and operated as a working ranch and rodeo grounds. But the last three owners have been trying, with varied success, to turn it into a residential enclave since the 1980s.Currently the ranch is home to 62 owner-occupied affordable housing units, most of which were built without permits by former owner Wink Jaffee.In 1998, owner John Musick proposed a 778-unit project that proved especially controversial. The county commissioners voted unanimously in a heated meeting to deny Musick’s application, prompting him to print up hundreds of “deeds” and give them away in front of the post office in Aspen to prospective buyers.The county responded by downzoning the entire ranch from an affordable housing designation, which theoretically allowed all the units for which Musick was asking, to a residential classification that permits just one house on every 20 acres.Musick’s deed ploy proved unsuccessful, and he was eventually bought out by Lowe W/J, a subsidiary of a large Los Angeles developer.Lowe W/J, managed locally by Jim DeFrancia, first submitted an application in 2000 to build more than 150 units of free market and affordable housing. The application was withdrawn after it was sharply criticized and recommended for denial by the county planning and zoning commission.The latest proposal asks for 28 units of affordable housing and 12 free-market homes with caretaker units. Last May, the P&Z recommended the county commissioners deny the application, but with considerably more reluctance than in the past.”It was a compelling presentation by the applicant,” Planning and Zoning member Joe Krabacher said after the May hearing. “Had they had the zoning, they might have gotten the green light.”DeFrancia told The Aspen Times last week that he likes his chances for approval in spite of the property’s troubled history with the county government.”We have really gone a long way to clean up the mess out there that John Musick left,” he said, including paying off about $1.5 million in unpaid bills to local companies and conferring long-promised trail easements to the county.Lowe W/J has also settled with Musick’s creditors in order to free the property from potential liens.”We like to think that, one, we’re going to be recognized for that work, and, two, that we’ve put together a good plan that’s in the public interest,” DeFrancia said.The application, which asks for the property to be rezoned to allow the development, will face stiff opposition from neighbors on either side.They argue that most of the development rights that go with the W/J Ranch were surrendered in 1989 when the existing affordable housing was given a post-construction approval by the county.The application has also been recommended for denial by the county community development department. Lance Clarke, the development’s deputy director, has compiled a long list of reasons the latest proposal is out of synch with the county’s land-use code and philosophies, and the citizen-generated master plans that apply to the proposal.Nevertheless, the current board of county commissioners is the most development-friendly in memory, demonstrating in recent months that it is very open to proposals that don’t fit in with the county’s established planning goals.”We have not made any changes to the plan,” DeFrancia said. “But we have done more homework and beefed up our arguments about how this fits in the master plans.”A Jan. 14 hearing is expected to open the issue, but it is expected to be continued until a meeting on Feb. 4, when all five commissioners can be present.[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is]

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