Appeal court upholds approval of Tree Farm project in El Jebel

A construction crew works on the Tree Farm project in El Jebel on Thursday, June 25, 2020. The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Eagle County's review and approval of the project was lawful. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The Colorado Court of Appeals on Thursday affirmed a lower court ruling that Eagle County followed the rules in its review and approval of the Tree Farm project in El Jebel.

The ruling by the three-judge panel means landowner Ace Lane and his company Woody Ventures LLC can continue development without starting from scratch with the county commissioners. The Tree Farm is located across Highway 82 from Whole Foods.

The county commissioners voted 2-1 in June 2017 to approve the proposal for 340 residences totaling up to 379,635 square feet and up to 134,558 square feet of floor area for commercial and light industrial uses.

A nonprofit group called Save Mid Valley and midvalley activist Ken Ransford, as an individual, filed a lawsuit in 2017 contending the review was flawed in multiple ways. An Eagle County District Court judge ruled in favor of the county in January 2019, so Save Mid Valley and Ransford appealed. A three-judge panel in the appeals court ruled unanimously that the process was legal.

“We will not overturn BOCC’s decision,” the ruling said.

Save Mid Valley, who was represented by attorney Tim Whitsitt, challenged the county approval on eight specific grounds, ranging from technical land-use issues to compliance with affordable housing rules and traffic mitigation.

For example, the plaintiffs claimed the county commissioners abused their discretion because Lane’s team had not shown the traffic mitigation would be enough to maintain service on Highway 82 and other streets at a required level.

The appellate court judges determined that four studies by an engineering firm showed that the Tree Farm was addressing its traffic generation.

“The record supports a conclusion that the predicted low Level of Service grade for the intersection (of Highway 82 and Willits Lane) is not caused by Tree Farm,” the decision said.

Save Mid Valley also claimed that the custom-made affordable housing mitigation plan by the Tree Farm failed to meet county requirements. The judges found that the county commission board “acted within its discretion in finding that Tree Farm had met the purpose and intent” of the county’s affordable housing guidelines.

Woody Ventures is building 25 rental units affordable to residents earning 80% of the area median income; 15 rental units affordable for residents earning 100% of area median income; five price-capped units for buyers at 100% of AMI; five price-capped units at 140% of AMI; and an estimated 150 sale units designated as resident only for 60 days before they can be sold to anyone else.

The judges found that the Tree Farm should be credited with at least 105 equivalent affordable housing units.

Among the technical land-use issues, Save Mid Valley contended the county commissioners abused their discretion by approving a plan that strayed substantially from the initial approval. The group claimed the developer should have been forced to rework the application. The judges disagreed.

The Tree Farm and Eagle County had a clean sweep on all eight issues challenged by Save Mid Valley.

Ransford said Save Mid Valley is assessing whether to appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Dave Marrs, chief financial officer for Geronimo Ventures and part of the Woody Ventures team, said the appellate court process didn’t delay the project. The infrastructure work was allowed to continue and work has started on the first phase. Nevertheless, the decision was welcomed because closing on the sales of lots to developers was continent on resolution of the court case.

“This validates all of the hard work, vision and commitment of Ace Lane, his three sons and the entire Tree Farm team,” Marrs said in a statement.

Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu said the court’s order was well-written and reasoned.

“We are pleased this matter is ending and are hopeful that the community can shift gears from litigating disputes to working together to make this development a success,” Treu said in a statement.

The first phase of development of the Tree Farm will be on land that wraps around the downvalley side of an existing water ski lake. The first phase is a mixture of residential and commercial uses. Buildings in that phase are slated to “go vertical” by September or October, Marrs estimated.

A designated hotel space in the Tree Farm is under contract for sale to a developer who is working on a plan to build a 122-unit hotel in the Tapestry Collection by Hilton. The new brand was launched in 2017.

The hotel site is on the upvalley side of the intersection of Highway 82 and Tree Farm Road — between the highway and an existing water ski pond.

On the upvalley side of the hotel site, a development company plans to build 70 residences in an independent living complex that will mix in a small amount of commercial space that includes a restaurant, according to Marrs.

The hotel and independent living complex are in the second phase of the project.