| 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
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
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.”