Confusion surrounding donation of a sprawling pioneer ranch to Larimer County grew yet more confounding, with doubts about whether the offer still stands and threatened legal hell to block the deal.
Despite strong words by critics and descendents of J. Evan Roberts, the Larimer County Open Lands Advisory Board on Jan. 24 voted 7-4 to recommend that the county commissioners accept the gift from Catherine Roberts.
The commissioners now are set to consider the offer during a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 4 in the first floor hearing room in the courthouse office building, 200 W. Oak St. in Fort Collins.
Regardless of the commissioners’ decision, however, there’s no certainty that the process will proceed. It remains unclear whether the offer is still on the table.
“Catherine has already rescinded this ‘gift’ in question as result of all this incompetent behavior,” Burke Evan Roberts wrote in a statement read to the board on his behalf.
He and brother Ben Roberts are the grandsons of J. Evan Roberts, the heir to the family that homesteaded the ranch in 1874. Their father D.L. Roberts is the son of J. Evan Roberts.
They have stated that they want to honor the wishes of J. Evan Roberts by keeping the ranch in the family protected by a trust.
Catherine Roberts, J. Evan Roberts’ second wife, has maintained she similarly wants to honor her late husband’s wishes by preserving the property as a working cattle ranch with a museum containing family artifacts.
A pair of conservation easements already limits development of the property.
Larimer County Natural Resources Director Gary Buffington confirmed that Catherine Roberts earlier in the week, before the meeting, informed county officials that she was rescinding the offer. In later discussions, however, he said she gave her permission to go forth.
Larimer County Open Lands Program Manager Kerri Rollins said Catherine Roberts was concerned whether she would be required to consummate the offer should she continue to pursue the county process. But after that later discussion, Rollins said Roberts was satisfied she would be under no obligation in any event.
“Basically she’s keeping her options open,” said Rollins.
Regardless of the outcome, Rollins insisted that Catherine Roberts can do as she pleases with the property.
Despite the threatened legal challenges by J. Evan Roberts’ son and grandsons, Buffington said the county’s position is that the 92-year-old Catherine Roberts is the legal owner of the land and can bequeath it as she sees fit. “We feel like we’re on solid ground,” Rollins said.
Following the statements by Buffington and Rollins, however, there was an unconfirmed report that Catherine Roberts once again had withdrawn the offer.
The ambiguous status of the offer not withstanding, the hearing before the advisory board was primarily aimed at evaluating the management costs associated with accepting the 16,500-acre ranch near Livermore. The board found such information lacking when it first reviewed the proposed donation on Jan. 3 and asked the county staff for more refined figures.
Based on the costs and revenues derived from similar county open space properties, county public works director Marc Engemoen estimated those costs could approach as much as $400,000 annually.
“We think that’s a reasonable estimate,” he said. “That’s in our budget.”
Perhaps the biggest unknown, however, is the cost of dealing with as many as 500,000 discarded tires on the property. A preliminary estimate by the county solid waste director estimated the cost at $300,000 to $400,000 with state grants likely available to assist in the cleanup, Engemoen said.
Citizens speaking at the public hearing generally were more concerned whether it was appropriate for the county to take ownership of a private property and maintain it as cattle-ranching operation—the key condition of Catherine Roberts’ gift offer.
“It’s inappropriate for the government of Larimer County to compete with the private sector,” said Rebecca Judson, owner of a neighboring ranch.
Critics also supported D.L. Roberts and his sons, who offered fiery objections to the county’s acceptance of the gift.
“This is kind of a personal thing,” said D.L. Roberts. He added that they had already had hired “high-powered lawyers” to challenge Catherine Robert’s claimed ownership of the ranch. “We’re making as much hell as we can.”
While expressing regret about the family feud, the board members said they could not assess Catherine Roberts’ competence or motives, only whether acceptance of the gift was prudent given the county’s resources and priorities.
“It’s unfortunate there’s conflict but we cannot and should not be involved,” said board member Trudy Haines. She called the proposed donation “a gift of incredible magnitude” and characterized such open spaces as jewels representing an investment and not a cost.
Former county commissioner John Clarke however urged the county to take caution acquiring any more open space properties—especially with the tax to acquire them scheduled to end in 2018 with uncertain prospects for voters to extend it.
“This is not the time to take on a project with such a potential downside,” he said. When the tax lapses in 2018, Clarke said, that could be a very serious situation if not extended by voters.
Board member Hugh McKean expressed similar concern about unresolved uncertainties. “This could be an enormous amount of money,” he said.
McKean insisted that a detailed management plan should first be completed rather than relying on the estimates presented.
“We’re not trying to sugarcoat it. There are large numbers involved,” said Engemoen. “We have given our best judgment what the cost to the citizens of Larimer County will be.”
“I don’t think you can know ahead of time,” said board member Nancy Wallace.
Board member Peter Kast concurred. He said he was confident of the estimates. “I don’t think a management plan is important at this time,” he said.
Gerry Horak said he was on the fence because of lingering concerns and ultimately voted against recommending that commissions accept the donation