Garfield County washes hands of past complaints about alleged Cedar Ridge Ranch code violations
Future complaints should be directed to appropriate agencies, commissioners say
A contentious feud between neighbors of an agritourism guest ranch near Carbondale and its owners reached what the Garfield County commissioners’ lead attorney called a “watermark” moment Tuesday.
In essence, county legal and code enforcement staff asked the commissioners to reset the clock regarding ongoing complaints about county code and other possible violations they said are out of the county’s hands regarding Cedar Ridge Ranch in Missouri Heights.
Following a lengthy presentation at a special Board of County Commissioners meeting Tuesday addressing the numerous complaints leveled at the ranch over the past several months, outlining what county code enforcement can and can’t deal with, County Attorney Tari Williams asked the commissioners to accept the findings and relieve staff of having to respond to any further complaints about matters that have already been addressed.
“Right now, Cedar Ridge Ranch is not involved in any violation of their permit or rights,” Williams said. “Community Development and the County Attorney’s Office stand by the investigations and conclusions of code enforcement.”
Although there may be issues between the neighbors outside of the county’s purview and control, “We can’t solve those problems with the current tools and authority that we have,” she said.
Williams added that county code enforcement shouldn’t be a “weapon” when neighbors are in dispute over land-use issues.
“It’s a tool for the county to work with the landowner to come into compliance,” Williams said.
With that, Commission Chairman John Martin declined to allow public comment on any of the past complaints that have been reiterated numerous times before the board.
“If there are any other violations as of today, we will investigate those,” Martin said. “But it has to go to the correct department or agency.”
As it stands, Cedar Ridge Ranch appears to be in compliance, and “compliance is the end game” as far as the county is concerned, he said.
Complaints about such things as open burn permits and potential wildfire danger, water and wastewater issues, wildlife violations and criminal allegations need to be directed to the agencies that deal with those matters, he said.
A contingent of residents living adjacent to and near the guest ranch were displeased with the outcome of Tuesday’s meeting, where they thought they would get a chance to have their say.
“We are intensely disappointed and frankly angry by today’s presentation,” Erin Bassett wrote in a statement issued on behalf of neighbors who say they are being routinely impacted by ranch operations and alleged harassment by the Cedar Ridge owners and staff.
“Aside from the fact that the legal staff did not get everything right, and we had no opportunity to challenge that, it seems the only conclusion that can be reached — which impacts every property owner — is that the county can issue a land use permit subject to conditions being met, but does not have the authority to ensure those conditions are ever met,” Bassett wrote.
“So, it becomes a neighbor’s job to have to push these concerns to each and every department separately and then have those agencies report back to the county in order to enforce compliance with rules or meeting conditions of permits.”
She said county residents should think twice about ever being generous and supporting a new property owner applying for a land-use permit change.
In the case of Cedar Ridge Ranch, “Violations that are repeated and then fixed to appease code enforcement only to be repeated is a current way to operate, so anyone who operates in bad faith can surely game the system to break rules, sustain a violation, fix the problem temporarily and then go back to the previous condition until caught again,” she said. “And that’s what has been occurring.”
Ranch owners Pam and Randy Johnson and daughter Merrill Johnson have maintained that they have and will continue to work with the county to address any concerns.
“We have taken every reasonable opportunity to address every allegation of health, fire and safety — no matter how unfounded, preposterous or truly ridiculous — and with minor exception they have consistently been found to be without merit and were not supported by credible evidence,” Pam Johnson said in a statement issued after a March 7 meeting when many of the same issues addressed at the Tuesday meeting were aired before the commissioners.
Assistant County Attorney Graham Jackson on Tuesday went over a long list of complaints from the neighbors addressing “30 or 40” topics, along with an explanation of which matters the county can deal with and which ones it can’t.
Next Monday, the commissioners are set to consider a formal resolution on the matter that would, according to proposed motion presented by Williams on Tuesday, “relieve staff of any obligation to respond to any complaint that has been investigated and addressed prior to today’s date, or that relies upon facts that occurred to today’s date.”
And, “Any complaint regarding Cedar Ridge Ranch not submitted directly to Code Enforcement on an official complaint form need not be investigated or responded to,” Williams also suggested.
“We recognize the frustrations that this has caused,” she said in opening Tuesday’s presentation. But the barrage of complaints, many of which the county doesn’t have authority to deal with, has been a drain on county staff time, she said.
Commissioner Mike Samson said the county may want to look at some revisions to its land-use code to more directly respond to certain life-safety concerns.
“This case has taken more time than anything I’ve ever experienced in 13 years as a commissioner,” Samson said. “… But our motive and the final outcome we seek is not to penalize people, but for them to come into compliance.”
Added Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, “This has been very difficult on our staff, and they’ve put in a lot of time coming up with some resolution. That’s the best we can do at this time.”
The Buddy Program rang in the holiday spirit with their annual Gingerbread House Workshops in Aspen and Carbondale.