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  • Dylan Anderson

‘Too big’: Steamboat Springs voters reject Brown Ranch Annexation

A plan to build 2,264 affordable and attainable housing units fell flat with voters, but city officials are eager to try again quickly to address housing at Brown Ranch.

Steamboat Springs voters rejected Brown Ranch annexation by a 16-percentage point margin on Tuesday in a sharp rebuke of a City Council endorsed plan that in the end was too big of a step for the ski town’s current residents.

Final election night results released by the city around 10 p.m. show ‘no’ votes are leading ‘yes’ votes 3,149 to 2,280 — 58% to 42%.

While talking points for the group opposing Brown Ranch, Steamboat Citizens for a Better Plan, were numerous — bloated roads, a looming out-of-town developer and financial shortcomings — many perceived issues with the project can be traced back to the size.

With 2,264 units planned, Brown Ranch was estimated to house more than 6,000 residents in a city with a 2023 population of 13,400 on land purchased in 2021 with a $24 million anonymous donation.

“It doesn’t matter how big the affordable housing problem is, this project is too big,” said Jim Engelken, a former city council member who has opposed this version of the Brown Ranch since the early annexation meetings last year, and who helped organize the campaign to defeat Brown Ranch annexation.

“In the end, it’s the existing city resident that makes the decision here,” Engelken continued. “I think [the Yampa Valley Housing Authority] lost sight of that. They just, they did not understand the values of this community and neither did the city council.”

The Brown Ranch has been heralded locally as a truly unprecedented opportunity to address a long building problem and from the Governor’s mansion as a potential model to help get Colorado out of a statewide housing crisis. The Brown Ranch has been featured in Time Magazine on NBC News.

As a migration of location-liberated workers has flooded mountain towns and driven up property values since the start of the pandemic, Steamboat had hope in Brown Ranch that other towns lacked.

In a statement sent out after annexation had failed on Tuesday night, YVHA Executive Director Jason Peasley said he recalled many of the people YVHA engaged with during the process to craft the Brown Ranch plan, many who were “barely hanging on” but saw “hope for the future” in Brown Ranch.

“My heart aches when I think of the people who told us the Brown Ranch would be their first legitimate opportunity to own a home, and they compared it to the good fortune so many others had over the past decades to buy a home,” Peasley said in the statement. “With this vote, that same opportunity for those community members is two to three years further out of reach.”

In addition to ending the third failed attempt to annex the same land into the city of Steamboat Springs in the last 14 years, Tuesday’s vote nullifies the Steamboat Springs 2I ballot measure voters approved last fall allocating funding to Brown Ranch. That measure hinged on the approval of the annexation agreement voters rejected.

Still, the Brown Ranch is not going anywhere. As Peasley notes in his statement, YVHA owns the land, and this area has long been designated for growth in the Yampa Valley.

Following the vote Tuesday, City Council President Gail Garey said addressing affordable housing remains a top priority for everyone on council.

“I don’t think there is anybody in Steamboat Springs who believes that there is not a housing crisis,” Garey said. “Tonight’s vote says that there are still questions about whether this plan was the right one. … I believe that we need to have that discussion and continue the dialogue and push to make sure that we get the housing that our community needs.”

Steamboat Springs City Council have a work session planned for April 9 to discuss the results of the election and what to do next, though it will undoubtedly come up at next Tuesday’s meeting. Council member Michael Buccino said after the vote Tuesday, that he wants to make getting a new annexation agreement a top priority for council in the coming months.

“We now have the opportunity to go back to the drawing board quickly and come up with a new annexation within the next three to six months,” Buccino said. “We can have a community together, and get everyone in a room and let’s solve this and stop waiting and delaying any further. Time is of the essence.”


What could a new Brown Ranch plan look like?

Peasley did not mention a new annexation agreement for Brown Ranch in his statement, but did stress that YVHA still owns the land and that its mission is still to build housing to support the local workforce.

“We will continue to work for the community and advance our mission to develop solutions to give our workforce the affordability and security they need to thrive,” Peasley said in the statement.

The result of Tuesday’s vote, once finalized by the City Clerk’s office on April 4, is the reversal of a city council ordinance passed on Oct. 17 approving Brown Ranch annexation without sending it to voters.

Then Council President Robin Crossan voted against that ordinance, feeling voters needed to have the final say. Crossan, whose term ended in November, represented the city on the special committee formed to draft the Brown Ranch Annexation Agreement.

“I’m very glad that the voters in Steamboat Springs took the time to get well-informed and educated not only on the annexation agreement but Michael’s [Organization],” Crossan said, referencing YVHA’s development partner for Brown Ranch. “[I] hope that we can now all pull together as a community, change what needs to be changed and come back to voters as quickly as we can.”

Largely, the annexation agreement is strong, Crossan said. Where it does need changes, the changes are significant, she added. One change specifically Crossan said she was looking for was a smaller plan, that could be built on in the future.

Engelken called this concept a phased annexation, where YVHA would bring back sections of the Brown Ranch in several annexation agreements over time. He stressed the next iteration of the plan also needs to have a significant market-rate component.

“Let’s do 1,100 units over 15 years and let’s get it right,” Crossan said. “Then at 14 years, we say, ‘Hey, look what we have produced for you, this is working, we still have more land, this is our new plan.’”

Garey agreed that the annexation agreement did not need to be sent back to square one, feeling that there were changes in the current plan that could be made to ease voter's concern.

“There has been a lot of work that has been done to date,” Garey said. “I think that we move forward from that in that we work to address the concerns that have been raised and figure out how we move forward.”


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