CODY — Six years after developers announced their plan to build a 104-lot gated subdivision on 550 acres between Cody and Yellowstone National Park, the Copperleaf subdivision is now owned by the bank that financed it.
The subdivision was bought last week by Wells Fargo Bank in a foreclosure auction in Cody. Among the criticisms of the project has been that its homes would be spaced close together on small lots, or clustered, in a way not in keeping with the surrounding rural community.
While a host of reasons contributed to Copperleaf’s financial troubles, it’s not the only project in the area to draw fire for being a “cluster development.”
Many land planners praise cluster development as a useful technique to help preserve open space and encourage strong ties between rural neighbors. Proponents say cluster developments are preferable to vast checkerboard subdivisions of small ranchettes, each with their own septic tank, horse pen, workshop and outbuildings.
Skeptics of proposed cluster developments say such projects will have a hard time succeeding in many parts of Wyoming, especially the sparsely populated Bighorn Basin. Advocates caution that legal challenges to cluster development may drive builders to alternative plans that more easily meet with zoning approval, but that result in less open space.
Ultimately, it’s homebuyers who will decide, and the choices they make will help dictate the course of future development across the state.
John Parsons, an equity partner in the Copperleaf project, said cluster development “is a good way to preserve open space and have wildlife corridors” through a subdivision.
“It would have provided a park-like and natural setting that wasn’t ever really appreciated” by Copperleaf opponents, he said.
Copperleaf developers have said that a protracted legal battle with opponents, as well as the nationwide housing crash, led to the project’s failure. All lots were provided with electricity, water, sewer and paved roads. Thirty-six lots were sold, but only three homes have been built.
Less than a dozen lots were sold in the last 30 months, as legal challenges to the project wound their way through the courts. Developers were largely vindicated by most rulings.
Spokespersons and attorneys for North Fork Citizens for Responsible Development — an opposition group partially funded by a wealthy neighbor whose hillside property overlooks the development — have argued that the luxury subdivision didn’t fit in with the surrounding community, and questioned whether it would have adequate and environmentally sound water and sewer facilities. Earl McKinney, the water operator who maintains Copperleaf’s domestic water system, said it works well, and even provides water to neighbors in an existing subdivision whose residents had problems with their water supply.
Parsons said that cluster development has been embraced in other parts of the country, but that it was new in the Bighorn Basin when Copperleaf was first proposed in 2004.
“I had seen it over in Teton County, but that was the only other place in the state I had seen it,” Parsons said.
“Some people were uneducated about it, or they would hear the word ‘density,’ and that scares them.”
Park County planning and zoning regulations since before 2004 have allowed developers in some areas to build slightly more units than would otherwise be permitted, but they must set aside open space as a way to protect views and preserve habitat and wildlife, said Jim Davis, deputy county attorney for Park County.
The Legislature in 2008 passed a cluster development law outlining a process by which counties statewide can adopt a similar approach. The statute sets out guidelines for how local planning boards may offer density bonuses that allow developers to build cluster developments.
Cluster development allows for creative approaches to “preserving the land, and not just chopping it up,” said Jim Waller, planner for Big Horn County, where two cluster developments have been proposed, one of which has been approved.
The Big Horn County Planning and Zoning Board has approved plans for Dorsey Creek, a planned 131-lot subdivision on 756 acres along the Greybull River, about six miles west of Basin. Though most of Big Horn County has no zoning rules, developers must still comply with state subdivision regulations.
Bob Elliot, an organic cattle rancher who grew up in upstate New York and started in organic farming in Virginia in the 1970s, caused a stir in 2006 when he first shared his plan for Dorsey Creek.
Houses would be tightly clustered in rows, with each home afforded a sweeping view of the Bighorn Mountains, while most of the open space would be used as in ranching operations.
Elliott has said he was inspired to create the layout for his development after seeing a landscape by the French painter Paul Cézanne, and that he first learned of cluster development in Colorado Springs, where it was being used to preserve farmland.
WEEDS AND WATER
The homes on 1/4-acre lots in Dorsey Creek would be marketed to people who want to live in a rural area as part of a close-knit community, but who don’t want to weed, water and work several acres of arid ranch land, Elliott has said.
“When you think about it, he’s actually only developing about 40 acres out of 756,” Waller said.
While Dorsey Creek has drawn attention for its size in a county where a large subdivision might have a dozen lots, its layout of clustered homes has also prompted a visceral reaction from rural residents who are not used to seeing closely spaced homes in rural areas.
“A lot of that is probably because everybody is afraid of change. It’s something different,” Waller said.
Waller praised Elliott for being a thoughtful, persistent and accommodating developer who, he says, has responded personally to every public comment made about his project over the last four years.
Though Dorsey Creek has been approved, numerous conditions will prevent it from moving forward without first ensuring adequate funding for each phase, Waller said.
He said that Elliott has delayed the project to allow the housing market to recover, but work could begin this summer.
Andy Dowling, who owns a vehicle salvage yard in Big Horn County, cautioned Elliott in a 2006 public meeting about building too many houses.
He said last week that he still thinks the development will be unable to attract enough buyers, but he doesn’t oppose it.
“Why would you buy one of those houses when the same money would buy you a place with 25 acres?” Dowling said.
He said that cluster developments may succeed in areas where residents are used to urban density, but they will have trouble finding buyers in Wyoming.
With less than 50,000 residents in the Bighorn Basin and fewer than 13,000 in Big Horn County, developments like Dorsey Creek will depend on sales to out-of-state buyers, he said.
Dowling questioned whether those who have lived in urban or suburban areas will adapt well to life near Basin, where there are few retail or dining spots, and the nearest interstate is more than 80 miles away.
Still, as long as concerns about water and sewer are properly addressed, Dowling said he supports Elliott’s right to develop his land however he wants to.
“I don’t think it’s going to trash anybody’s property values. The way it’s landscaped, it won’t be an eyesore,” he said.
Dowling said some of those who had opposed Dorsey Creek in public meetings were “hermits” who were against any development.
CONCEPT CAN WORK
If done affordably, cluster development can work in Wyoming, despite the failure of Copperleaf and the opposition of some locals to the concept, said Mike Donley, a Cody real estate agent.
“I think there’s a place for it in this state, but I think we’re just at the beginnings of it,” Donley said.
Copperleaf was aimed at a high-end market, and such developments have typically taken a decade or more to sell out, even in strong housing markets, he said.
Cheaper lots or homes clustered in an attractive, neighborhood setting in a rural area are likely to appeal to retirees moving from urban areas, Donley said.
“They like the 40-acre idea, but they just as well like the 40-acre views,” Donley said.
Local buyers aren’t familiar with cluster developments, but might warm to the idea if there are a few regional success stories, he said.
“I think there’s probably not enough of it being tried,” he said.
Parsons, the Copperleaf partner, said homeowner covenants for his project required homebuyers to spend 10 percent of the price of their lot and home on landscaping, and prohibited keeping horses on small-acreage lots, to prevent overgrazing.
The zoning for Copperleaf could have allowed developers to divide the sprawling pasture into 100 separate 5-acres lots, he said.
That’s the choice one Big Horn County developer made after neighbors and others opposed a development plan near Shell called White Creek, Waller said.
The developer of that project proposed a 21-lot subdivision on more than 250 acres, with homes clustered on 2-acre lots along the junction of Shell Creek and White Creek.
Funds from the development would be used to buy sprinklers to more efficiently irrigate the surrounding farmland, the developer said when first pitching his plan in 2007.
But when faced with opposition to the cluster plan, the developer chose to subdivide the land into 35-acre, lots, Waller said, a move that would leave less open space and result in what he called a “worst-case scenario” that no one initially wanted.
He said that owners who are committed to developing their own private land are likely to do so despite objections, and that blind opposition to cluster development can push builders along the path of least resistance.
That can lead to the kind of subdivisions that some cluster opponents say they like even less.
Because roads and utilities have already been put in place at Copperleaf, it’s likely that any future development will follow the original cluster plan.
But a new owner could conceivably reconfigure parts of that property for a checkerboard ranchette layout of multiple 5-acre lots, Parsons said.
Parsons said he understood why people closely scrutinized subdivisions proposed in scenic and environmentally sensitive areas, but he agreed with Waller that some opposition efforts could yield unintended consequences.
“We all want Western landscapes and values, but we have to be careful not to be our own worst enemies,” he said.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9321 or [email protected]