Owner says century-old home may be torn down after Routt commissioners deny variance request
Commissioners designated the Fair Acres Ranch historical in March, but denied the variance fearing approval could be "slippery slope"
A century-old home given a historic designation by Routt County commissioners just nine months ago may be torn down after county commissioners denied a variance request from the property owner.
In a divided vote, commissioners denied a request on Tuesday, Dec. 27, seeking to redefine the 1911 Fair Acres Ranch home as a secondary dwelling unit on the property under a regulation that a different group of commissioners put in place decades ago but has never been used.
Granting the variance would have allowed property owners Josh and Carrie Babyak to construct their dream home at the 55-acre Fair Acres Ranch without needing to remove the historic home.
After the meeting — which had one of the largest audiences of any county commissioners meeting this year — Josh Babyak said the decision would lead to the house’s demise and force the family of four living there to find new housing.
“We’ll knock it down,” he said. “We were going to knock it down to begin with. We did all this just to save it.”
Residents living near Fair Acres Ranch spoke during public comment to ask commissioners to deny the request, warning it could be a “slippery slope” where people target properties with historic designations with the intent of building a new home and maintaining the existing one under the guise of a secondary dwelling.
They cautioned it could start a trend of increased housing density in parts of the county, where someone needs at least 35 acres to build a home.
The historical significance of the house was not really debated, and some people said they didn’t care whether it is historic or not. Instead, they expressed opposition to a new 4,000-square-foot home and the 2,000 foot driveway that would lead up to it, even though commissioners have no control over those developments, as they are considered “by right” land uses on parcels more than 35 acres.
“They came at us hard,” Babyak said of his neighbors. “(It’s) very unwelcoming as a new person in town trying to do everything right.”
Babyak said their intention when purchasing the ranch in 2021 was to demolish the historic house and build a 10,000-square-foot modern home on the property. But that plan changed when they learned about the history of Fair Acres Ranch after meeting Arianthé Stettner, the emeritus director of Historic Routt County.
In March, commissioners created a historic district for the Fair Acres Ranch south of Steamboat Springs that included the home from 1911, a barn built in 1912 and two other buildings. This allowed the specific regulation to apply to the property, though that was not mentioned as the Babyak’s intention at the time.
County zoning regulations say that the owner of a dwelling unit that has been added to the county’s register of historic places can request a variance to regulations governing secondary dwelling units from the board of county commissioners.
Regulations require a secondary dwelling to be within 300 feet of the primary residence and have less than 800 square feet of habitable space. The home would have needed a variance from each of these requirements, as it is over 2,000 square feet and roughly 2,000 feet away from the new home the Babyak’s are constructing.
While important to consider, Commissioner Tim Corrigan said he didn’t feel the never before used regulation needed to be prescriptive in this case. He added that in his view, a historical designation does not allow commissioners to ignore zoning regulations that are a foundation of the planning process in the unincorporated county.
“I really would love to preserve Routt County history and make sure that there would be a way for people to move forward when they buy historic properties,” said Commissioner Tim Redmond, agreeing with Corrigan. “But at the same time, I also understand that this could be a backdoor, and that people may start to seek properties out to find ways around our existing codes.”
Commissioner Beth Melton disagreed, saying that she felt the regulation on the books allowing the variance request was designed exactly for this situation.
“We have competing goals for the common good,” Melton said, borrowing a phrase from Stettner’s public comments. “I think that’s why a previous set of commissioners, a previous planning department developed this process.”
“Without this variance process, the applicant would build their new home and their driveway — which again, they are allowed to do — and they would tear down this house,” Melton continued.
Commissioners voted 2-1 to deny the variance with Melton opposed. After the meeting, each commissioner said they didn’t think the regulation allowing this request needed to be repealed, though a review of what qualifications would make a property historical could be warranted.
Historic designations in Routt County are non-binding and can be considered on a property more than 50 years old, though the designation requires commissioner approval.
“I don’t know why the variance is there,” Babyak said. “I hope we have a slippery slope of people trying to save houses like us. Otherwise, people will come in and knock them down and not go through everything we went through. I think this set a really bad precedent.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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