Mountain Parks Electric’s wetland property near Winter Park causes controversy
Winter Park Ski Resort represents one of Mountain Parks Electric’s largest electricity loads, according to Mark Johnston, the power company’s general manager. Johnston said the resort’s demand led to a plan in the 1980s to build a substation nearby and use it to provide the town and resort with electricity.
Mountain Parks bought 2.7 acres of land on Vasquez Road just southwest of downtown Winter Park in July 1984 for $61,200 — $174,535.45 when adjusted for inflation into 2022 dollars. The company never built anything on the property, which sits outside the town limits, instead using a substation farther north on County Road 5.
In May 2021, Mountain Parks upset one of the property’s neighbors, Cliff Anderson, by putting the land up for sale for $1.25 million. Anderson has concerns about overdevelopment on the land and his own idea of what it could be used for.
Johnston said the company would use sale proceeds for employee housing.
“One of the biggest challenges for us when we’re recruiting somebody is the high cost of housing,” Johnston said. “Obviously, we have a difficult time providing the service that we do if we don’t have the employees.”
But Anderson believes a developer buying the property for $950,000 — its current listing — would have to build dense housing to make any money, putting wetlands on the 2.7 acres at risk of destruction.
A potentially protected property
Anderson, a longtime Grand County resident, has worn many hats — from real estate agent to president of Headwaters Trails Alliance and the Fraser Valley Metropolitan Recreation District. He lives on property adjacent to the Middle Parks Electric land and has voiced concerns about its potential sale.
The property contrasts with the area around it with a dense forest of trees. Anderson said he helped facilitate a clearing of dead trees around the area, but the trees on Mountain Parks’ property remained untouched because they were thriving.
When he heard about Mountain Parks’ plan to sell the property, Anderson became concerned that a potential buyer would want to develop dense housing there to maximize profits, putting the section of healthy vegetation at risk. Anderson called Geoff Elliot, an earth scientist with Grand Environmental Services, to inspect the property in Oct. 2021.
Elliot created a report based on his inspection of the land. He identified part of the property as a wetland and identified characteristics consistent with a fen — a rare type of wetland that Elliot called “globally endangered.”
“We should be conserving these things, rather than going for high top dollar and that kind of stuff,” Elliot said.
Around half of the property is wetland, Elliot said, but he wrote that only about a third of the property would be suitable for development because some of the buildable upland would need to act as a buffer in between construction and the wetlands. Johnston said Mountain Parks disagrees with Elliot’s assessment of buildable area.
“There are wildly different percentages of the property that people believe may be wet,” Johnston said. “Obviously, (Anderson’s) is the largest percentage, but others that we have talked to believe that it’s significantly smaller. Until somebody actually gets in there and does the analysis, I don’t think that anybody knows for certain.”
While Elliot listed characteristics of the wetlands consistent with a fen, he did not make any official designation. He made an initial inspection of the property, not a more in-depth delineation, which would examine soil, vegetation and more to determine if the wetlands are indeed a fen.
The Army Corps of Engineers regulates construction that could add or remove fill or dredged material from Waters of the United States, and Elliot mentioned in his report that construction on the Mountain Parks property would likely require a permit from the corps.
Benjamin Wilson, a regulatory project manager for the corps in Grand County, said development on wetlands almost always includes adding material to the wetland, which requires corps approval. The corps issues nationwide permits for common activities, and Wilson said they allow construction to fill a half acre of wetland if other alternatives — like building solely on upland — are not possible.
The corps can revoke national permits, though, and often do based on regional conditions. Colorado’s conditions have requirements that revoke any national permits directly impacting fens. To build in a fen, a developer would need an individual permit, which Wilson said have their own processes and requirements.
The individual permitting process involves a water quality inspection, a public notice sent to nearby landowners, public comment and an analysis of alternatives to building on the protected land, Wilson said. Alternatives could include things like buying nearby land and building the project there.
Individual permits also require some form of mitigation, which Wilson said the corps requires for any project with “more than minimal” impact on protected land. The corps considers fens, which develop over millennium, as what Wilson called “un-mitigatable.”
The corps would not get involved in the Mountain Parks Electric property unless someone tried to build on it in a way that would affect the wetland, and before a developer could do that, they would need to determine the specifics of the wetland with a delineation. Besides determining the type of wetland on the property, a delineation would also determine its boundaries.
“We’ve had some challenges with it, primarily due to neighbors …”
Johnston said he and the Mountain Parks Electric board of directors did not foresee the sale of their property taking over a year, but emphasized that they feel no pressure to sell it soon.
“We have the luxury of being in a place where we don’t have to sell the property,” Johnston said. “We can wait. We can try to extract the greatest amount of value out of the sale of this property, to be able to use it for other purposes and to get a good deal for our members.”
The electric utility company has received multiple offers for the land, Johnston said. Zillow’s listing for the property lists four instances where its status changed to “pending sale” before going back on the market. Without going into detail of any specific offers, Johnston said they all have not “come to fruition” for one reason or another.
“We have had some challenges with it, primarily due to neighbors and them scaring off people,” Johnston said. “It’s not been a smooth process.”
On at least three occasions, Anderson said he has spoken to people who were standing on his property while trying to look at the Mountain Parks land. He told them they were on his property, which he said he has marked with yellow flags. While one group, a real estate broker and a woman, apologized and walked off his property, he said a man who came alone remained on Anderson’s land as he walked along the property line.
Mountain Parks Electric decreased the listed price for their property from $1.25 million to $950,000 in April, but still intends to sell the land to fund employee housing, believing it would provide a benefit to the co-op’s members.
“(The best option) was to sell it and take that money and utilize it to either invest in one of the projects that one of the towns of Granby or Fraser are building,” Johnston said. “Or to potentially acquire additional housing somewhere in Granby, or Hot Sulphur or something like that, or potentially even build something on another piece of property.”
While Johnston said a developer would likely purchase the land to build housing, he said Mountain Parks has not talked to potential buyers about the type of housing they would build — a single family home, duplex, etc. The company has considered other uses for the land, though, and Johnston said they are open to new ideas.
One non-housing idea Johnston mentioned involved what he called a land swap with the town of Winter Park. Keith Reisberg, Winter Park’s town manager, wrote in an email that he did not know of any discussions of a land swap between the parties, but wrote that the town had reached out to Mountain Parks Electric on several occasions to inquire about buying the land.
The town would use the land, which sits at the border of US Forest Service land, to develop trailhead parking and other infrastructure, Reisberg wrote. The project would look to reduce impacts from dispersed camping — or camping outside of a designated campground — that is common in the area.
Johnston mentioned the trailhead parking area as well, saying Anderson helped push for the idea. Anderson made an offer to Mountain Parks for the land in May and said he would build a parking lot and restroom area on the upland and a walking trail through the wetland with signs to inform visitors about the nature around them.
Although Anderson only offered $495,000, a little over half of Mountain Parks’ asking price, he said he based the offer on a comparative market analysis of the property, which estimated its value to be between $245,000 and $495,000, with a recommended price of $327,000. Anderson ran the analysis in May and offered the high end of its results.
The Mountain Parks board rejected Anderson’s offer. Johnston would not talk about that offer specifically, but said the board has rejected multiple offers after analyzing the financial aspect of the agreement and any other conditions in the contract.
“There have been suggestions that we’re doing this to enrich the organization,” Johnston said. “The organization is our members. We are member owned, so anything that we would do — if, as has been suggested, we just give the property away, then we’re giving away something that our members own.”
Johnston compared donating the property to giving away the company’s fleet of vehicles, saying the company would eventually need to buy new ones and pass the cost onto their members.
“Our members paid to buy that property,” Johnston said. “So they should receive the benefit of that property if we choose to sell it.”
An uncertain future
The 2.7 acres on Vasquez Road remains on the market with no official designation of the wetlands it could contain. Johnston said the Mountain Parks board talked in July about getting a delineation done on the property to provide buyers with more certainty, referencing Elliot’s report as a source of confusion for buyers.
Johnston said he walked around the property in June and thought much of it had “not even the suggestion that there’s water,” reiterating the company’s position that the property has space to develop housing without intruding on the wetlands. He also mentioned mitigation options to satisfy Army Corps of Engineers requirements, like buying wetlands elsewhere to protect them.
“I think there are a number of ways to be able to address any potential concerns of a buyer,” Johnston said. “But I think that from our board’s perspective, it is something — that certainty for a buyer — (that) will make the sales process quicker.”
The Mountain Parks board has regular meetings every second Thursday of the month, and Johnston said the Aug. 11 meeting could provide more direction for a potential delineation. The board also has a special meeting Aug.16, but no items on the board’s agendas for either meeting specifically mention the property.
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