County Slams Door on Divide Retreat Center -Rick Langenberg

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In a decision that could have big future impacts on how non-profits can do business in rural Teller, the County Commission has halted the resort pursuits of a prominent retreat center in Divide.

By a unanimous vote and with a few strong words, the commissioners denied the bid of The Lodge at Elk Valley, which tried to obtain a special use permit for a resort designation. In addition, the commissioners weren’t willing to accept a compromise by the operators of the spacious facility to do away with hosting weddings and related receptions on the 40-acre property.

With this verdict that followed a marathon three hour-plus hearing last week, the future of the Lodge is definitely in limbo, along with the overall operation of Gary and Lois Sprague, who run the Center for Single-Parent Family Ministry. The decision also may signal a turning point for operators of church camps and ministries that want to expand these facilities into mini-event hubs, especially in rural parts of the county.

In essence, the operators of the property wanted to use the mountain facility in a way they had about 10 years ago, with the Lodge hosting retreats and associated outdoor and indoor recreational activities for a slew of non-profits and religious groups and for government offices. They sought a special use permit for a resort. With this permit, the Lodge also would be allowed to house 25 guests overnight for 70 days a year, and accommodate 35 day guests for 20 days per year.

The commissioners, though, clearly sided with Teller County Planner Dan Williams in maintaining that the proposal didn’t meet the master plan for Divide and clashed with the rural lifestyle of the area. “A venture of this nature doesn’t fit in the rural environment,” said Marc Dettenrieder, vice-chairman of the board of county commissioners, at the close of last week’s hearing. “The use is incompatible.”

Commissioner Dave Paul, while admitting that the Spragues do great things in the county, agreed and maintained that their operation represented a commercial enterprise. He stated that the Lodge operators need to change the growth map of Divide if they want to use the facility as a resort. “This is a limited growth area,” said Paul. “We are just not there,” said Commission Chairman Norm Steen, in referring to the prospects of the commissioners giving the green light for this special use permit.

An Uphill Battle
The operators of the Lodge faced an uphill battle from the get-go. Williams recommended a staunch denial of the request with a staff report that indicated the proposal didn’t meet the county’s standards for a resort designation. “This will have impacts on adjacent property owners and the Divide community,” said the Teller planner. “This is the wrong location for these events,” added the planner. In his report, he classified the plan as a bid to turn The Lodge at Elk Valley into a major event center, which would feature catered meals, entertainment, group lodging, outdoor music, barbecues, games and other activities. “Rural lands should be encouraged to stay rural,” concluded Williams.

However, the Lodge operators through their attorney, William Louis, presented a different story. “This is not another Golden Bell,” said Louis, a former attorney for El Paso County, when referring to a resort project in the area that stirred much controversy in the past.

Instead, he said the applicants have agreed not to host any more weddings or wedding receptions and parties with DJ’s. He referred to their plan as accommodating what they did in the past, prior to hosting weddings, in operating a small and quiet hub for retreats for people, families and groups that needed time to heal and retreat to an ideal mountain environment. “My clients are not proposing any new development,” said Louis.

He argued that county officials have falsely turned this plan into a bid for a major events center. “This isn’t the Walt Disney World. This isn’t a hotel,” said Louis.
Instead, he referred to the activities the Spragues wanted to do on the property as similar to those associated with a single family residence. “It is quiet and small,” said the attorney.

But Louis encountered quite a grilling by the commissioners. Dettenrieder denied the attorney’s claims that the county was undergoing a change in philosophy pertaining to these types of special use permits. “The philosophy hasn’t changed. You are dealing with a complaint-driven system,” explained Dettenrieder.
Dettenrieder was referring to many complaints made against The Lodge at Elk Valley by nearby residents in the last two years, mostly pertaining to wedding receptions. This even led to a decision to have a previous conditional use permit revoked.

Paul went as far as suggesting that Louis and the Lodge managers pull the plan from the table. “You are a commercial enterprise. You are asking us to approve a resort,” said Paul.

The commissioner advised Louis and the Lodge operators to consider a map change of the Divide growth area, before they moved forward with their plan. He said they couldn’t circumvent the law “because good things happened there (at the Lodge).” And if The Lodge at Elk Valley received this resort designation, Paul feared that the county wouldn’t have any protection from a future owner who may have different ideas about the property. “The new owner could turn this into a nudist colony,” blasted Paul.

More importantly, he said the commissioners needed to listen to the concerns of Divide residents, and respect the growth plans for the area. “Our constituents’ opinions are important to us,” said Paul.

Most residents who attended the hearing spoke in opposition to the plan. They stressed that this resort bid definitely clashed with the rural character of Divide and outlined previous problems residents had with the Lodge managers.

“It is not a personal thing. It is a land use thing,” said resident Chuck Buckley. “It is not consistent with the land use plan.”

“This would really set a bad precedent,” said Jim Irving, who serves on the Divide planning committee. “This is a commercial venture we are buying into,” added resident Leslie Schubert.

However, the plan had a few vocal supporters, who mostly lauded the community spirit of the couple who managed the property.

Lorrie Worthey, the mayor of Green Mountain Falls, heavily praised the work of the Lodge managers. She said they opened the door of their facility to her family, when they lost their son Jacob who died from a bout with leukemia. “This (The Lodge at Elk Valley) facility is a beautiful place. And Teller County is a special place,” said Worthey.

The Green Mountain Falls resident urged the commissioner to approve the plan, but impose more conditions and review the permit on an annual basis if necessary. She stated that many other counties, such as El Paso, abide by this policy.

Similar sentiments were echoed by Wendy Nethertor. She said the Spragues have done so much for the people of Teller County.

Both sides in the fight had petitions that endorsed their respective stands with many signatures from Teller residents.

In his final comments, Louis urged the commissioner to consider a compromise. “There is no bad guy, no good guy,” said Louis. “These are competing land uses. There is not a perfect land use.”

What he (Gary Sprague) is proposing is not going to harm anyone. There really is a compromise.”

But in their final deliberations, the commissioners maintained that a compromise isn’t possible, in lieu of the current request and the county’s land use rules.