Craig ranch OK’d for development

Marilyn GleasonSpecial to The Aspen Times

The Pitkin County commissioners speedily approved a plan for subdividing one of the upper valley’s few remaining large ranches on Wednesday with little discussion.Applicant Carol Craig, who has owned the ranch in Woody Creek since 1962, received the county’s blessing for six new homes on 1,084 acres that the family can now carve into eight parcels.The family has met little resistance from either the neighbors or the county as they moved through the approval process. “It’s the kind of conservation development we’re psyched to see,” said county planner Suzanne Wolff.Carol Craig and her grown children said they began to consider options for the property as far back as 1984. This week’s action permits the elder Craig to bequeath to her three children portions of the scenic ranch where they grew up.The property straddles Woody Creek, climbs hillsides in either direction, and stretches to the west across the mesa adjacent to Star Mesa. The family is only the second to own the property, having bought it from the family that originally homesteaded it.The Craigs agreed to rezone 306 acres to rural and remote and include a deed restriction against further development. In return, they will receive eight transferable development rights to build houses on other parcels carved from the historic ranch.The plan allows seven homes, one on each of the developable parcels, and four 700-square-foot caretaker units.The family has talked to Pitkin County Open Space and Trails in recent years as they explored ways to conserve the ranch. Dale Will, open space and trails director, said the ranch is valuable and rare. “We’re getting down in Pitkin County to the last dozen large properties,” said Will. “There’s nothing comparable in Woody Creek.””We like the land plan they’ve approved,” Will said of Wednesday’s action. The commissioners voted unanimously both to rezone acreage on Vagneur Mountain east of Woody Creek road and to approve the specifics of the plan to subdivide. They also agreed the Craigs could allocate transferable development rights, or TDRs, in a way that has not been tried before.Pitkin County awards one TDR for every 35 acres of private land preserved through a change to rural and remote zoning. TDRs can be used to obtain initial development rights elsewhere or additional square footage for a structure.The land-use code stipulates that TDRs can only be received or used as whole units. One TDR is worth 2,500 square feet of floor area; TDRs can’t be split and sold to multiple buyers. Recently a TDR sold for $180,000.In approving the resolution, the board agreed to let the Craigs share the 7,500 square feet embodied in three TDRs among four dwellings on four new parcels.County planner Wolff had said county codes prohibited using TDRs in this way; planning consultant Sunny Vann argued, and the county attorney agreed, that the rules don’t specifically address the question, leaving the BOCC latitude to approve the deal without amending the code.”It’s pretty limited in scope,” said Wolff of the leniency granted, because of the condition that the TDRs could only be shared on the same property they were derived from. “We wouldn’t want to see it go beyond that.” Wolff said language will be written into county land-use codes currently under revision to clarify the circumstance. “In a way, it does sort of set a precedent,” said Wolff, but “it’s a limited number of people who even have the ability to do that,” because only owners of large land parcels could move development rights around a single property.”It wouldn’t work if you transferred the TDR off-site,” said Wolff.The family will have 15 years to build, well beyond the statutory requirement for three years vested rights. Wolff called the extension “a pretty big deal for the county,” bestowed in consideration of the public benefit from reduced density and preserved land. “No one is planning to build immediately,” Vann said. “Ideally, they’d like to keep the ranch pretty much as you see it today.”Will holds out hope that conservation easements could make that “set in stone.” He acknowledges the plan doesn’t shut the door on either applying for more development in the future or adding more stringent protection.”The plan they got in place is completely consistent with getting a conservation easement later,” Will said.Under a conservation easement, owners sell development rights to permanently protect undeveloped land.Will said the family has made a commitment, but “they’re not under a legal obligation to stick to it. They could still come back to the county and ask for more later.”For now, the force of a conservation easement is only a possibility, one limited by the economics of buying development rights for a property worth some $20 million.