In a move that surprised Douglas County's own open space director, the county in January spent $18.75 million to acquire one of the most coveted swaths of ranch land within its boundaries, the …
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In a move that surprised Douglas County's own open space director, the county in January spent $18.75 million to acquire one of the most coveted swaths of ranch land within its boundaries, the historic Sandstone Ranch, for the purpose of preserving the land as open space.
The county closed on its purchase of the ranch, which has been in operation since the 1870s, from AR Sandstone LLC, a Texas-based company, on Jan. 18.
The 2,038-acre property borders Pike National Forest and the Front Range foothills west of Larkspur. The landscape boasts red rock formations, a forested canyon and sprawling meadows roamed by the ranch's cattle herd and horses.
Officials said acquiring the land is a big win in terms of preserving the county's agricultural heritage and natural resources.
“We recognize that the Sandstone Ranch acquisition is so much more than just the preservation of 2,038 acres," said Douglas County Commissioner Roger Partridge in an emailed statement. "It is the preservation of the county's history, heritage, wildlife habitat, and other natural resources — a quality-of-life investment for present and future generations."
The move by the county puts to rest development that could have occurred on the property.
At one time, the ranch was slated to become a small but bustling community. The county approved an application in 2008 from a developer with plans to divide the ranch into more than 100 lots for housing construction and equestrian facilities.
“They were talking about lakes with boat ramps and a community center and a community garden,” said Douglas County's director of open space, Cheryl Matthews.
The project never came to fruition and the land remained largely undeveloped. The approximate 20 structures on the property are either historic — think old-fashioned red barns with outhouses — or used for the ranching operation, such as a cabin for the ranch manager to live on-site.
“It didn't fit for development,” Partridge said. “To supply it, it would be ground basin water for a large part. We don't have a transportation network down there.”
Although the 2008 development never panned out, the property was still being marketed to developers and private landowners before the county purchased it this year — and it was being marketed at a higher asking price of $27.6 million.
Matthews remembers the exact date, Oct. 25, when she saw the ranch listed at the reduced price of $18.75 million. She immediately sent the listing to county manager Doug DeBord, mostly as a joke, she said. Matthews didn't expect the county would consider purchasing the land.
“It would just be the largest acquisition that we've ever undertaken,” she said of the open space department. “And then (DeBord) came back and said, `I'm not kidding. I think we should do it.'”
In previous open space studies, the county had identified preserving Sandstone Ranch as a high-priority item.
The county called a special business meeting on Dec. 27 to approve pursuing the purchase. The county initially offered to purchase the ranch for less than the asking price, but a bidding war brought the amount up until the county agreed to meet the $18.75 million list price.
Approximately $9.25 million of the cost will be covered by the county's open space fund — tax revenue legally dedicated to protecting open space. The county is pursuing $3.5 million in Great Outdoors Colorado grants and plans to accept $6 million from the Chatfield Reservoir Mitigation Company to cover the remaining balance of the sale.
The county's voter-approved open space fund began collecting tax revenue in 1995 and will sunset in 2023. It generates an average of $10 million to $11 million a year.
Forming a plan
In speaking with Colorado Community Media, Partridge said commissioners believed buying the land would be in line with what residents want, citing community survey results and the popularity of county open space.
Use of Douglas County open space trails grew by 30 percent from 2016 to 2017, reaching 568,000 users, Matthews said.
Castle Rock resident Inger Hiller said she's glad to see the county will preserve Sandstone Ranch as open space.
“I am so excited as a resident,” she said. “It will be utilized for generations to come.”
She also believes the acquisition was a smart business move. Open space, she said, is an economic booster for the county.
Hiller leads a Castle Rock hiking group that sometimes draws members from outside the county. The area's ample open space is what attracts them to begin with, she said, and those non-residents in turn spend money locally when the group gets drinks or food together.
“That's our brand,” she said of Douglas County. “The open spaces in general are a money driver for the county.”
Mostly, Hiller said, she is eager to explore Sandstone Ranch.
Although the county will be opening Sandstone Ranch to the public, that likely won't be until next year. Officials will spend most of 2018 forming a master plan for the property before the county allows visitors on site. The process includes soliciting public input and getting approval from commissioners to implement the final version.
Public comment at the Dec. 27 special meeting was almost entirely in favor of the acquisition, although some residents from neighboring subdivisions worried placing the public entrance to the ranch too near the Perry Park subdivision entrance could create traffic issues once it opens to the public. Matthews said the master plan will identify the best location for an entrance.
“It's a blank sheet at this point in time. We're looking at all different kinds of public use,” Matthews said.
Officials do have a rough vision of what the master plan will look like.
The county already knows it will limit public access on Sandstone Ranch to “non-motorized use,” meaning visitors can strap on their hiking boots or gear up their mountain bike but will have to leave rigs like the ATV at home.
The master plan will likely approve continuing the ranching operation, maintenance for the historical structures, a forest management plan and educational programming.
'What Douglas County use to be'
To prepare for the master plan, officials are starting to evaluate the property.
On Jan. 23, Douglas County land management specialist Michael Butterfield drove his ranger truck across snow-covered Sandstone Ranch grounds, past the cattle herd, high up over lookout points and into the forested canyon on the property.
He was still getting acquainted with the ranch. There is a lot to take in, he said.
So far, Butterfield had determined the land is unique from the rest of Douglas County's open space. The sheer size of the ranch stands out, he said, along with the number of structures on the property.
As a county employee, he saw the ranch, in part, as work. They'll need to manage the forest for pests and wildfire hazards, and decide if cabins are suitable to rent and if they'll need to install trails in addition to gravel roads already there.
As a resident raised on a ranch in western Douglas County, however, Butterfield also saw a glimpse of the old Douglas County, before the state's population boom and Douglas County grew more urban.
“This is really a remnant,” he said, “of what Douglas County use to be.”
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