Luxury ranch developments are cropping up across Colorado. Are they preserving our open spaces and cowboy culture—or destroying them?
That's one trend that Chris West, executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust, is trying to reverse. West works with family farms and ranches to help them remain working agricultural operations, often through conservation easements that provide tax incentives to landowners who forfeit their development rights. He maintains that luxury shared ranches aren't putting family farms out of business. And as developments go, they're relatively farm-friendly: Low-density developments like Maytag, Sandstone, and Marabou actually preserve large tracts of open space and keep agricultural lands in production—an approach West prefers over 35-acre "ranchette" developments that eat up prime agricultural land.
But the luxury model doesn't actually preserve Colorado's working ranches. "It's a completely different economic structure," West explains. For one, ranch developments aren't scratching out a livelihood from the land: Homeowners' fees subsidize the ranching. And he suspects that most emphasize aesthetics over production, using agriculture as so much window dressing. "My concern is that ranches have become merely a vehicle to sell real estate lots, the way golf courses have," he says.
Not everyone agrees. Montana Canterbury, the cattle and ecology manager at Maytag Mountain Ranch, spends his days working on pasture rotation, weed management, animal husbandry, and raising 300 grass-fed, certified-organic cattle. Canterbury grew up ranching in Hillside, and now manages the property that Russ Maytag worked for 30 years before he initiated the development. "There's nothing fake about this ranch," Canterbury says. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't a real ranch." Left unsaid is the Maytag's good fortune of 27 wealthy benefactors.
Neighboring ranchers also accept luxury ranching as a far cry better than another golf course or condos. "They keep their fences up, and they're very good about managing water," admits Marsha Daughenbaugh, who, in addition to serving as executive director of the Community Agriculture Alliance in Steamboat Springs, has been ranching all her life on the Rocking C Bar Ranch, which sits within sight of Marabou. Still, Daughenbaugh says it's hard to watch the land torn up to build big roads and expensive houses that look out of place on ranches, even if Marabou tries to mitigate the impact with planning.
Furthermore, as luxury developments raise land values, they're putting a tight squeeze on family farms—at least so long as the federal estate tax remains in place. When the ranch owner dies, the heirs must pony up taxes on the land's worth. So while ranching operations might gross $600 per acre annually from grazing and hay, the land is assessed according to neighboring tracts selling for $30,000 per acre. "The IRS doesn't care if the land is used for condos or cows. They assess against the highest adjacent value," says Daughenbaugh. When her 92-year-old dad dies, Daughenbaugh will likely have to sell off part of her property to cover the estate taxes. Faced with the same situation, many families are forced to sell out entirely—making estate taxes possibly the single biggest reason explaining the disappearance of family ranches.
As working ranchers sell out and vacation homeowners move in, the social fabric takes on a new texture. "They're changing our culture and heritage," Daughenbaugh says. "The people moving in are in love with the ranch lifestyle, but they know nothing about ranching, and they don't understand us." She credits Jeff Temple, Marabou's developer and a descendent of area ranchers, for supporting regional agriculture as best he can, but these days she grumbles, "It seems like everybody wants to be a cowboy."
Wearing Wranglers and Western shirts, a band plucks out a country tune for the Marabou owners who've gathered for a Fourth of July celebration. The dance floor sits on a river bend, and the sound of rushing water babbles beneath the twanging guitars. But few have begun to boogie; everyone's still gathered around the swimming pool. Kids bob everywhere, splashing their water wings in the beach-style entrance and paddling after balls.
Just beyond the lounge chairs, where parents rest their pedicured feet, baled hay gleams golden in the late-afternoon sun. Those pastoral views might remind some loungers of the farms their parents worked, or their grandparents. They know that their land-hardened ancestors were forged in hotter fires than they, but they sense that the strongest parts of themselves were tempered during the hours they stacked bales in a 150-degree hayloft. They want their kids to be strengthened by the same flames—and so does Chad Bedell.
A few days earlier, Bedell sat in the shade munching a sandwich. He thought of his son, a toddler who's still too young to offer much help around the ranch. But Bedell's already started to teach him about moving goats and cleaning the stables—the broader principles of land stewardship that Bedell didn't believe would last. He knows that at a ranch like Marabou, his work represents equal parts romance and reality. But he'll take it.
Kelly Bastone is a contributing writer for 5280. E-mail her at email@example.com.