Garfield County engages in feud between Missouri Heights landowners over agritourism and neighboring operations

Merrill and Pam Johnson hang out with the alpacas in the pasture at Cedar Ridge Ranch near Carbondale.

A long-running feud between landowners in the Carbondale area surrounding Garfield County’s relatively new agrotourism arrangements erupted before Garfield County commissioners on Tuesday.

As Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario attended a special meeting of commissioners to help keep order, the crowd managed to keep their cool.

However, some of the comments at the meeting claimed that this was not the case on the ground where the dispute turned into threats, verbal attacks, intimidation, trespassing complaints, lawsuits and even beatings. dangerous fire.

Commissioners called the meeting to hear from neighbors of Cedar Ridge Ranch regarding concerns about fire danger, water use, noise, light pollution, large gatherings and various alleged permit violations.

“The biggest problem is that there is no way to enforce the rules,” said neighbor Marc Bassett. “If they played by the rules, we would be fine with (the deal), but you have to follow those rules. “

The ranchers have defended themselves, noting that there has never been a documented violation, despite several county inspections.

“The good news is we’re still here,” said Merrill Johnson, who owns and operates the guest ranch. with his parents, Randy and Pam Johnson.

“Agrotourism is brand new, we are the first to do it here, and it is not easy,” she said. “But people come from all over the world and gain a real understanding (of life on a ranch). “

This includes learning where food and animal care comes from, and what it takes to make a living in farming, Merrill said.

“We are an open book,” she added of the operation. “If there’s a way to do better and be a better business… we’re all in it. “

No decision was made after the commissioners allowed people to speak.

The council will consider the comments and consider the various permit requirements and may request a follow-up investigation by the county’s community development department, after which a formal hearing could take place, Commission Chairman John Martin said.

One way or another, the commissioners will let players know how the county plans to proceed, even if it takes no action, he said.

Cedar Ridge Ranch, located on County Road 103 in Missouri Heights northeast of Carbondale, has been approved three years ago under the county agrotourism provisions of 2013 which enabled overnight guest operations aimed at developing tourism and providing a ranch living experience for visitors.

It is currently approved for three yurts and / or seasonal tents and a cabin, the ranch facilities providing visitors with hands-on education in animal care and food production, farm-to-table meals, horseback riding lessons and other amenities.

Adjacent neighbors, however, have lodged complaints about the commercial exploitation and its impacts on other residents of the area.

To complicate matters, some adjacent property owners share a private access road to their properties with Cedar Ridge Ranch. Some of these neighbors have their own business ventures, including vacation rentals and a yoga retreat. The lack of clear property lines in some places led to trespassing complaints, which neighbors said they tried to control.

“We are not asking you to revoke their license,” said neighboring landowner and vacation rental operator Peter Athens. He asked for clarification on the use of the easement and the potential shared liability in the event of an accident involving a guest from Cedar Ridge.

“We knew there was a conflict in this area when we arrived,” Athens said of his and his wife Liesl Clark’s decision to buy the 35-acre plot two years ago. “We try to be peacemakers, but we face hostility and aggression. “

A neighbor, Archie Hager, said his property overlooked Cedar Ridge Ranch and that he had not observed any egregious breaches.

“We absolutely support your decision to allow agritourism there,” he said of the 2018 commissioners’ decision to allow the operation. “We bought our house knowing she was there, and we hug her.”

Commissioner Tom Jankovsky acknowledged that there may be growing difficulties in authorizing guest operations on ranches, and suggested the county can likely strengthen its authorization rules and enforcement practices.

“If there are threats against people and they fear for their lives, this is where the sheriff comes in,” he said. “What we don’t want is for it to explode where someone is injured.”

Senior Journalist / Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or [email protected].

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