Boundary change charged as unethical
River Trails Ranch annexation plan raises hackles

Sidebar: City defends River Trails Ranch stance

Developers of the proposed River Trails Ranch hope to annex the land into Durango across the Animas River to city limits near Animas View Drive. A suspicious boundary
adjustment could enable the annexation./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

A recent, suspicious real-estate transaction has a number of people scratching their heads about the controversial River Trails Ranch. Courtesy of a boundary adjustment with an adjacent property, the development can now seek admittance into Durango city limits. All parties involved agree that the recent move by River Trails Ranch was legal. Few believe that it was moral or ethical.

Eight hundred new units have been proposed for the property formerly known as the Kroeger Ranch. Developers Bob Wolff and John Wessman have filed an application for River Trails Ranch on 245 acres immediately north of Durango in the Animas Valley.

Pictured above is a rendering of the
planned 800-unit New Urbanism

The development team is hoping for approval for a New Urbanism style development that would include a variety of housing types. The team is also seeking annexation from the city, which would allow River Trails Ranch to enter Durango City Limits and hook up to city sewer and water service.

According to Colorado statute, one-sixth of the perimeter proposed for annexation must be contiguous with the city boundary. In the case of River Trails Ranch, numerous intermediate properties north of Durango prevent direct annexation. Consequently, Wolff and Wessman have worked to connect the property west across the Animas River to another parcel they own bordering city limits along Animas View Drive.

The connection became possible on Oct. 15, 2002, when a woman named Martha Higgins bought Morningstar Arabians, the horse ranch immediately north of River Trails Ranch. At that time, Morningstar was bordered to the north and west by the Frazier Ranch, another horse facility.

Higgins, who identified herself as a retired secretary, then approached Sylvia Frazier about purchasing the 16.2 acres blocking Morningstar Arabians’ access to the river. Higgins told Frazier she wanted river access and the ability to expand her property to add a second dwelling unit. She also noted that she would be putting a conservation easement on 24 acres of her property, insuring that it would forever remain as open space. Frazier had already put 112 acres of her ranch, including the 16.2 acres she sold to Higgins, in a conservation easement. On Oct. 16, 2002, the parcel changed hands.

“The whole thing was conveyed to Martha Higgins, whoever in the world she is,” Frazier said. “I met with her, and she was very vague about her plans.”

On Nov. 27, 2002, another transaction took place without Frazier’s knowledge, when 1.56 acres of the original 16.2 acres were conveyed to Wessman Holdings at no apparent cost, according to La Plata County records. It is through this 1.56-acre sliver that Wessman and Wolff propose to annex River Trails Ranch into Durango.

Higgins could not be reached for comment. However, local lawyer Denny Ehlers represents MH at Durango LLC, a company Martha Higgins set up as the official owner of Morningstar Arabians. Ehlers also happens to represent Wessman. When asked if there was a direct connection between River Trails Ranch and Martha Higgins, Ehlers replied, “I can’t comment on that.”

Regarding the transaction, Ehlers said, “For annexation, you have to be contiguous. There was not contiguity directly across the river. The boundary adjustment was a way to allow for contiguity.”

City Planner Greg Hoch said the annexation plans are within the requirements of state statute, noting that property can be annexed across conservation easements, rivers and many other unusual property features. “It’s not an illegal annexation,” he said.

However, the deal is posing some ethical dilemmas. Sylvia Frazier said she felt that Martha Higgins misrepresented herself and her plans during negotiations. “To me, it seemed like a sensible sale at the time it was presented,” she said. “I am disappointed in the way it turned out. But at least only one little strip was conveyed to Wessman.”

Kathy Roser, executive director of the La Plata Open Space Conservancy, is another person who is disappointed in the outcome of the transaction. The conservancy holds and enforces the conservation easements both on Frazier Ranch and now on Morningstar Arabians. “We were not notified when the actual boundary adjustment took place,” Roser said.

She added that the transfer was done within the limitations of the conservation easement, which allows for boundary adjustment but not subdivision. However, she said she did not know a boundary adjustment on 16 acres of open space could help facilitate the development of 800 units.

“Quite frankly, we knew that there could be a straightening of the lines,” she said. “We certainly didn’t know it would create the situation it created.”

Roser said regardless of what happens with River Trails Ranch, Frazier’s conservation easement will prevent development from going farther up the Animas Valley.

“I think Sylvia did one of the most wonderful things with her property,” she said. “Even if Kroeger Ranch is developed, that conservation easement will stop the development from moving any farther north.”

For its part, the Friends of the Animas Valley is also disappointed in the way the 1.56-acre sliver was conveyed.

“Our position is that even though it may meet the letter of the law, it circumvents the intent of the parties involved,” said Dick Emmett, a member of the group. “Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it moral or ethical.”

Emmett added that the Friends of the Animas Valley will continue to oppose efforts to annex the property into Durango. “We’re still opposing the annexation,” he said. “We’ll look at all aspects of it and hopefully, it won’t require any legal challenge.”





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