Council reverses on public vote; Annexes Brown Ranch in dramatic vote to shape Steamboat's future
The 4-3 vote saw Council Member Joella West change her vote to support annexing the planned 2,262 unit development that promises to heal Steamboat’s decades-long housing pain without a public vote.
In a dramatic reversal, Steamboat Springs City Council approved Brown Ranch annexation in the early hours of Wednesday without subjecting it to a city-wide referendum — a move that only became possible when Council Member Joella West switched her vote.
Council’s 4-3 vote means annexation will not automatically be referred to a special election, an about-face from last week's decision that saw West join the other three council members to insist annexation be in the hands of Steamboat voters.
But West changed her mind after new details about the capital funding gap were presented and after considering that significant grant opportunities could be in jeopardy if annexation were delayed.
“If we’re all wrong, this could kill your project,” West said. “If I say no, then we are left with a proposal that is not palatable to the housing authority, so we get nowhere. Then we are looking at dates in early 2024 and we’re looking at funding, and whether that funding goes to other communities because we are not prepared for it.”
“Given that we are right down to it, I have to vote yes,” West concluded, casting the deciding vote long after the other six had cast their votes.
In joining council members Dakotah McGinlay, Gail Garey and Michael Buccino, West cast what may prove to be one of the most pivotal votes in the history of Steamboat Springs. Data from the Yampa Valley Housing Authority shows Steamboat is short 1,400 units now, with even more needed by 2040. By annexing Brown Ranch, Council sets into motion a 20-year plan to build all the housing Steamboat’s workforce is expected to need by 2040 — a total of 2,262 units.
The land now known as the Brown Ranch has been identified for growth for decades and has been through three separate annexation processes in the last 15 years. The Yampa Valley Housing Authority purchased the land in 2021 with a $24 million anonymous donation. Over the past two years, thousands of citizens have participated in the planning process, with this third annexation process taking the last nine months to put together.
“I’m just so happy for the community to be moving forward with this,” said Yampa Valley Housing Authority Executive Director Jason Peasley following the vote. “We heard from 4,000 people over the last couple of years how important housing is to them and to take this step — which is a huge step forward to making that a reality — it’s really gratifying. I’m just happy for the community members, the people that we are trying to support.”
Both West and Council member Heather Sloop said Colorado Governor Jared Polis called them to show his support for the Brown Ranch. Polis was there in 2021 when YVHA purchased the Brown Ranch and has signaled multiple times that he is very supportive of the project.
Council President Robin Crossan, Council member Ed Briones and Sloop each voted against the annexation ordinance, wanting to send the question to voters. Sloop pitched a last-minute plan to cut the Brown Ranch in half — but ultimately failed to gain enough support when Peasley said YVHA would not agree to such a change.
While council is not referring the question of Brown Ranch annexation to voters, that doesn’t mean they won’t be the final arbiter. Voters can petition annexation to a citywide vote and some have threatened to do just that. As it became clear council would not require a vote, Sloop said she intended to help the campaign to get the signatures needed to force annexation to a referendum.
“We need to take that credibly and see how many community members truly want to put this to the ballot because the job may not be finished,” Peasley said. “If it goes to a referendum, that is no problem from our standpoint. … This is what our community needs, we have been planning for this for 40 years.”
The decision not to send annexation does not impact Steamboat Springs Ballot Measure 2I. If passed, 2I would dedicate 75% of short-term rental tax revenues to YVHA for use at Brown Ranch, though City Council could lower or eliminate that funding if certain unit delivery metrics are not met. If 2I failed, annexation would continue, but STR funding would need to be appropriated by Council each year.
Council spent about four and a half hours discussing Brown Ranch annexation starting Tuesday and extending into Wednesday. This included an 80-minute section of public comment that saw opponents speak about the risks Brown Ranch poses to the current community character while supporters warned failure to annex the property had equally dire consequences.
Still, Buccino said he feels those opposing Brown Ranch are in the minority, and he is seeing that in public comments.
“In the last week, we’ve had 44 emails and people coming up talking (in support of Brown Ranch), to 20 people to oppose it,” Buccino said. “That’s a two-to-one vote … that speaks volumes.”
But the capital funding gap remains a concern, though it has become more palatable to some on council. New Tuesday was the revelation that revenue from the short-term rental tax can be used to fund the city’s portion of U.S. Highway 40 upgrades, which had been viewed as a significant part of the capital gap without any clear funding.
Previously, it was thought that since these upgrades were allocated to the city, those specific projects would not meet the criteria in last year’s ballot language. City Attorney Dan Foote said he now believed that revenue could be used on the highway projects and not just for parks.
“We will have the land to build a community park for our town,” Buccino said. “I don’t know how we are going to build it. … We need to have any money that we spend on housing, which is used 365 days a year. The parks will not be used that much.”
“I hate it, but so be it,” West said, referencing the idea that there isn’t clear funding for the parks. “We need to move forward on this.”
“Every day that we delay doing something to solve this problem, we are chipping away at the heart and soul of this community,” Garey said. “The annexation agreement is a sound document. … It’s an agreement that protects the city, so I am comfortable moving forward.”
Foote emphasized that there is no way for the annexation agreement to force the city into financial ruin.
“There is absolutely zero percent chance that the annexation agreement could cause the city to become insolvent or bankrupt,” Foote said. “The use of the term bankruptcy in this context is thoroughly misinformed.”
Briones, Crossan and Sloop all pushed for council to send the question to voters as they voted to do last week. Briones said he does support Brown Ranch, but has always felt annexation needed to be a public vote.
“(A vote) gives us time to educate, it gives us time to figure out (Colorado Department of Transportation) monies,” Sloop said. “Sending it to a vote also affords a great success, because you have that education and you have that timeframe to find those funding gaps.”
“I acknowledge that it is a sound document. I think we have gotten as far as we can go,” Crossan said. “My concern is that (annexation) will go to referendum and then we will have a bigger problem. … I feel comfortable supporting the agreement, but only if it goes to voters.”
McGinlay argued that one reason not to send annexation to voters was because many local workers who need Brown Ranch the most would be excluded from the election because they do not live in the city.
“I hear over and over again how important it is that we address this housing crisis from both sides,” McGinlay said. “We won’t find another better plan that delivers this kind of affordability and commitment and benefit to our community.”