Judge rules lawsuit is premature against Tree Farm project in El Jebel
A lawsuit against the Eagle County commissioners over the Tree Farm project was dismissed Tuesday when a judge determined it was premature.
District Court Judge Russell Granger sided with the county and development firm Woody Ventures LLC that Save Mid Valley jumped the gun because the county commissioners haven’t issued a final, written decision.
The commissioners voted 2-1 on June 26 to approve the project in El Jebel, which includes 340 residences and nearly 135,000 square feet of commercial space. The project was proposed by landowner Ace Lane through his firm, Woody Ventures LLC. The approval is only a verbal decision at this time.
A joint motion by the county and developer said the commissioners had 90 days from June 26 to issue a written resolution on the project.
“Until then, there is no final action and plaintiff’s complaint is therefore premature,” they contended.
Granger was succinct in his order.
“The court is relying upon the defendant’s assertion that there is not a final decision at this time,” he wrote.
Ken Ransford of Save Mid Valley said the case will still be argued on its merits, though that will be delayed.
“The good news is we have a chance to file again,” he said, adding that the organization will file another lawsuit.
Ransford said case law was unclear on whether his group needed to file its lawsuit within 28 days of the commissioners’ verbal vote or their written decision. Two cases before the Colorado Court of Appeals provided conflicting guidance, he said.
“We had no choice but to file,” Ransford said. “We were damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”
Tim Whitsitt, the attorney for Save Mid Valley, also said a lawsuit will be filed again once the decision is finalized.
David Marrs, chief financial officer with Geronimo Adventures and part of Lane’s team, said the developer thought from the start the lawsuit was too early.
“We fully expected a suit but the filing seemed both premature and petty,” Marrs said in an email. “We continue to be open to working with all of our community partners to make this project even better in the future — but it’s hard to when the Basalt mayor’s husband is leading the charge to sue us along with a Roaring Fork Planning Commission member.”
Whitsitt is the husband of Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt. Ransford was a member of the Roaring Fork Regional Planning and Zoning Commission, an advisory board to the Eagle County commissioners, but he resigned prior to the filing of the lawsuit.
Marrs statement continued, “We want the Tree Farm to be a successful and vital part of the community, much like Willits has become. But dragging the community through a legal process doesn’t seem like the right thing to be doing.”
Ransford said Save Mid Valley is meeting later this week. “We would definitely be open to revising the project,” he said.
If that cannot be accomplished, the lawsuit will target two legal points that Ransford contends should be clear-cut. First, that the zoning on Lane’s property doesn’t allow multi-family housing and limited commercial development.
Second, they contend Eagle County erred by allowing too many extensions of the approval for Tree Farm that was granted in 2009. The land-use code in place at the time of the approval allowed development rights for two years and allowed one extension of two years. The county commissioners revised the rules during the Great Recession to allow additional extensions of approvals. However, Ransford claimed the Tree Farm’s approval couldn’t be extended beyond 2013.
“They slept on their rights,” Ransford said.
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In the fields and vineyards from Palisade to Paonia to McElmo Canyon, grapes are still ripening on the vines and farmers are now picking with high hopes that the wines of 2020 will rise above the tenor of the times.