Routt County Planning Commission splits 5-3 over rural wedding chapel permit

Tom Ross

— Sensing the possibility of a stalemate over the Priest Creek Wedding Chapel Thursday night, Routt County Planning Commission Chairman Steve Warnke found a way to broker approval for Lambert and Robyn Orton’s plans to establish a wedding business at their small ranch just south of Steamboat Springs. But maybe not as many weddings as they’d like to host someday.

The Ortons have hosted weddings for friends in a little chapel fashioned from a remodeled granary on the ranch — as well as fundraising events for local nonprofits — for many years. They went before the Planning Commission seeking to make it “official” and asked for a permit to host as many as 10 events in the first year and as as many as 20 in succeeding years on their property on Routt County Road 24 opposite Haymaker Golf Course.

“When I bought the old Kemry Place there was an old granary behind the barn, and in typical Don Quixote fashion, I thought it might have a different purpose,” Lambert Orton said. “We wanted the community to see a chapel when they came into Steamboat, so we put a steeple on it and christened it the Priest Creek Chapel. It’s been a lovely setting, and I think it’s a real opportunity to give locals and out-of-town folks alike a unique rural wedding experience close to town with all the amenities.”

They got their permit, but not the 20 annual events. At least not yet.

The Ortons hoped to host eight events of no more than 250 guests and two more with up to 400 guests in the first year of business, then bump the threshold up to 20 events in the succeeding years, including 18 of up to 250 guests and two of the larger events.

In the end, they got their wish for their first year of operation — 10 events, but if they are ever to host 20 events in a season, they’ll have to return to the formal county planning process seeking to amend their permit.

Nearing the end of a two-hour discussion, it looked like the commission would be split on a four-to-four vote. Half the commissioners found no problems with the proposal, and the other half objected, for reasons that included the gradual “creep” of more intensity of use in the south valley agricultural area, potential impacts of wildlife and streams and the impacts on neighbors who have a reasonable expectation of enjoying the pastoral nature of their property.

Warnke asked his fellow commissioners if they would be comfortable approving the permit if it didn’t automatically include the expanded number of events in the second year, and the stalemate was broken.

The final vote was 5-3, with commissioners Bob Woodmansee, John Merrill and Karl Koehler dissenting.

“If flies in the face of the protection view corridors and wetlands,” Woodmansee said. “If anywhere between 10 and 20 weekends are used by a number of people in that area, I can’t imagine sandhill cranes sticking around. The moose are probably going to be gone, and the riparian area there is very vulnerable. Pretty soon, we have a cumulative impact.”

The compromise brokered by Warnke also creates some breathing room for the Ortons’ neighbors, Tom and Linda Litteral, who own an undeveloped lot next door where they fear their enjoyment of the natural landscape and a trout pond would be threatened by the increased number of parties on their neighbors’ ranch.

The Litterals live in Steamboat Springs, not on their land next door to the Ortons, and they are in the process of deciding whether to build a home on the land or list it for sale. Tom Litteral said he’s less concerned about weddings than he is about the vague category of special events and the license guests feel to do what they choose when they book and pay for a venue.

“The proposal before you is not just about weddings and wedding receptions, and that is very troubling to us being adjacent property owners,” Litteral told commissioners. “A paid-for opportunity is more of a chance to do what you care to do with your event. There is no restriction in this application as to what is a special event. If they paid for it, they are special.”

Warnke reminded those in attendance that the Orton’s have already demonstrated they can successfully host weddings and fundraising affairs.

“We’re not dealing with someone who woke up yesterday morning and decided to host events,” he said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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