Court order paved way for sale of Catto ranch outside of Aspen

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
Little Woody Creek Ranch sold in January for $23.5 million. The late U.S. diplomat Henry Catto, who hosted numerous dignitaries, heavy-hitters and artists, owned the ranch before he conveyed it to the Catto Charitable Foundation in 2009.
Michael Hefferon/AMG Marketing |

An August court order played a key role in this week’s $23.2 million sale of the Little Woody Creek Ranch, which means the 128-acre property will remain preserved under the new ownership.

Last year, the ranch became the centerpiece of a lawsuit that the Catto Charitable Foundation, which owned the property, filed in Pitkin County District Court. The document asked the court to amend the property deed because of its ambiguous language.

“The Foundation has determined that it is in the best interests of its charitable purpose to sell the Ranch and use the proceeds from the sale to further its charitable mission,” said the complaint, dated April 29, 2014.

When the ranch’s longtime owner, former U.S. diplomat Henry Catto, conveyed the property to the foundation in 2009, a deed stipulated numerous development restrictions. But the deed’s language was unclear, making it difficult for the foundation to market to prospective buyers, said Aspen attorney Bart Johnson, who provided legal counsel to the foundation in its sale of the ranch.

On Aug. 18, Pitkin County District Judge Gail Nichols signed an order that allowed the foundation to amend the deed. Most important, Johnson said, is that the new owners can’t use the property for commercial purposes and must preserve it.

“The new deed reads more like a conservation easement would,” he said. “They have to maintain the property’s natural habitat and maintain its ecological, pastoral open space and scenic value. That was missing from the original deed, and in retrospect, that made it problematic to sell. The property had become so valuable that it made much more sense for the foundation to take that money rather than have it tied up in land.”

Nonprofits will likely lose access to ranch

Various Aspen-area nonprofits once enjoyed the Little Woody Creek Ranch for functions, residence programs and other offerings, but the sale likely puts an end to those perks.

The Aspen Writers’ Foundation — now called Aspen Words — used the ranch to host award-winning author Terry McMillan in September. And in the Oct. 13 issue of The New Yorker, a poem written by Rowan Ricardo Phillips, who stayed at the ranch in December 2013, began, “Alone in Woody Creek, Colorado …”

Chris Lane, executive director of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, said the nonprofit most recently used the property a few months ago to house its forest-health director as part of its scientist-in-residence program.

“When we saw that the property was being sold, we knew that we would be ending our relationship,” Lane said.

Lane said the losing access to the ranch wouldn’t affect ACES’ forest-health program. “There’s no real change,” he said.

Little Woody Creek Ranch is “amazing ecologically,” he said.

“There are mountain lions, golden eagles, elk,” he said. “The Cattos were wildlife-friendly and they treated us great.”

The revised deed, like the previous one, includes language that includes nonprofits’ use of the property. The deed says the ranch “may be used for buildings to conduct workshops, programs, seminars or meetings for or on behalf of house employees and visiting faculty and guest of the Aspen Institute, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies Inc., the Music Associates of Aspen Inc., Aspen Ranch Arts Center or any other nonprofit organizations as agreed to by the Board of Directors of the Catto Charitable Foundation.”

But, Johnson said, “How the new buyers choose to use the property, we don’t have control over.”

New owners get ‘exclusive use’

Mortgage documents for the sale include provisions requiring the owners to use it for “their exclusive use and enjoyment at all times.”

Called a “second-home rider,” the document is attached to the $11.75 million deed of trust signed by buyers Laurie and Richard Stark. The document says that the Starks “shall occupy, and only use, the property as borrower’s second home.” Additionally, the agreement prohibits the Starks from renting out the ranch or using it for timeshares or shared-ownership arrangements. It also forbids them from giving a “management firm or any other person any control over the occupancy or use of the property.”

The Stark couple formed a limited liability corporation in Beverly Hills, California, called bellejackblue, under which the property is now owned. The Starks are the founders of Chrome Hearts, a luxury jewelry and accessories brand based in California.