CFI will recreate its Professor Creek rustic field camp to a new nearby location on what used to be the Taylor Ranch [Photo courtesy of CFI]

The Canyonlands Field Institute took a big step forward in its quest to build a new facility, when the Grand County Council voted to take action at the conclusion of a public hearing on Tuesday, March 4, voting 6-0 in favor of approving a conditional-use permit application. The permit allows the nonprofit outdoor education organization to establish a facility on what used to be the Taylor Ranch, off of state Route 128.

“I feel greatly relieved and I’m very appreciative of the support that was shown by the people who spoke on our behalf and by all the council,” CFI executive director Karla VanderZanden said.

The council fast-tracked the approval the same evening as the public hearing. Typically, the council postpones action until after a nearly two-week period open to further written comments. If a councilmember moves to take action that same night, however, and it is approved by a two-thirds vote, they can do so. 

With the mission to connect people to the land of the Colorado Plateau through field-oriented experimential education, CFI has been running programs at a rustic camp near Professor Creek since 1987. In 2009, CFI received notice from its landlord, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that, with changes in the agency’s resource management plan, its lease on the property would not be renewed.

CFI needed to find a new location for its field camp by spring 2014. Local philanthropist Jennifer Spears agreed to help by purchasing the nearby Taylor Ranch. After buying the property, she gave CFI a 25-year lease with an option to buy.

Member’s of CFI’s planning and engineering team presented information to the council regarding the Taylor Ranch site plans, which include 10 tee-pees, two yurts, two trailers, a pavilion and an existing agricultural building on 40 acres of land zoned for range and grazing.

The Grand County Council received letters and heard public comments both supporting and opposing CFI’s application, including support from the Grand County School District.

“The CFI experience develops student enthusiasm for science, natural resource, and tourism careers,” Grand County School District superintendent Scott Crane wrote in a letter of support. “These are jobs, both technical and professional, that can bring our youth back home to work.”

Grand County Middle School principal Melinda Snow spoke in CFI’s favor at the public hearing.

“Our students normally have to travel long distances for field programs; this one is in our own backyard,” she told the council. “I’m anxious for an affirmative response.”

Other citizens who supported the application included residents from Professor Valley, Castle Valley and Moab .

“It’s a priceless opportunity for people 5 years old to 90 years old,” county resident Theresa Butler said.

Concerns about the camp were raised primarily by neighboring land owners. While the majority of land surrounding the Taylor Ranch belongs to federal agencies, land to the south and southwest of the ranch is privately owned and includes residential and agricultural uses.

The closest neighbor to the new campsite, David Spark Livermore, submitted a letter to the council and was also represented by an attorney at the public hearing, as he is currently out of the country.

“I stand in complete support of CFI’s stated mission and goal,” Livermore said in the letter. “However, I am concerned about this proposal which threatens to profoundly change the quality and character of some of the last open-range land and the only significant creek-based riparian habitat in the Richardson Amphitheater, which is a part of the Colorado River corridor.”

Livermore also raised concerns about noise, fire, and a nearby raptor’s nest.

Neighbors Ann Wilson and Peter Lawson raised concerns about future development.

“What I’m suggesting is that you consider what they plan to do,” said Steve Russell, an attorney representing Wilson and Lawson, who are currently out of the country.

Russell showed the council a copy of CFI’s long-term development site plan that included three phases.

Phase II includes 15-to-18 permanent structures and phase III includes a wedding gathering site.

“I urge the council to deny the application or send it back,” Russell said.

“The first phase paves the way for subsequent phases,” Wilson said in a letter read by Moab resident and retired Grand County School District superintendent Margaret Hopkin. “A development of this magnitude is in conflict with the land.”

Wilson’s mother, Robin Wilson was a co-founder of CFI.

Before reading the letter, Hopkin told the people gathered, “I may or may not agree with what is in this letter, but regardless of my own opinion, I believe in a citizen’s right to be heard and so I agreed to read Ann’s letter.”

Several citizens also raised concerns, both in writing and at the public hearing, about the process by which the land use code (LUC) was amended to allow environmental education centers and research stations to be located on range and grazing zone districts.

“The land use change was not ‘incidental to’ or ‘a part of a general revision’ of the LUC, but was rather a revision made with an aim of ‘affecting specific property,’” Livermore said in a written statement to the county, referring to Ordinance 511.

During the planning process for development on the Taylor Ranch, CFI did initiate a text amendment to the LUC for conditional use on range-and-grazing-zoned land.

“The planning department actually recommended that we consider submitting a new conditional-use category, which was not just for CFI, it was applied to the Boy Scouts and anybody else who comes along,” VanderZanden said.

The county planning commission at that time had already been scrutinizing use-specific standards in the land use code for educational facilities, said Krissi Braun, the county’s community director.

“Prior to CFI, there was Rio Mesa and what they pursued was a field research station,” she said.

Rio Mesa was connected to a university and the LUC allows educational facilities “in all but a couple of the zone districts,” Braun said.

“But we weren’t really permitting the actual use,” she said. “The use of a field research station or environmental education center is really a lot different than a college campus. Obviously it has a distinct need to be in a rural setting. So in that sense, CFI was helping us resolve an existing issue with the land use code.”

Livermore also raised concerns about a possible conflict of interest. The Grand County Planning Commission chairperson at the time the was Kalen Jones. Jones was, and is, also engaged as the landscape architect with CFI on the proposed development, and is listed as such on the application statement.

In the Planning Commission minutes from the August 2012 meeting in which the text amendment was approved, Kalen Jones is listed as the present and acting chair. The minutes state “The Chair declared he has a business relationship with the Canyonlands Field Institute and has been working with the Planning Department on the code amendment.”

According to Grand County policy, as stated in Ordinance 462, the officer with a conflict of interest should recuse himself. But, policy also states, that if the officer insists on voting, his vote shall be considered an abstention.

The amendment to approve Ordinance 511 was passed by a 6-0 vote at that meeting; only four votes were needed.

In closing remarks to the council, Dave Bierschied, a member of CFI’s Board of Trustees, told the council, “This application is for a rustic camp, not for something in the future. I think we’ve covered our bases. We’ve answered every question that was asked.”

With respect to future plans, CFI hopes to keep the conversation with their neighbors open to reach amicable solutions.

“The long-term relationship is extremely important because of our joint history and shared love of place and shared values,” VanderZanden said. “We have far, far more in common than we have in terms of differences and so we’re going to focus on that.”

With the final approval of site plans for the conditional-use application, CFI will be able to continue business and host its first group of the season, scheduled to arrive in April.

Go-ahead allows Canyonlands Field Institute to establish education center near SR 128

“I stand in complete support of CFI’s stated mission and goal. However, I am concerned about this proposal which threatens to profoundly change the quality and character of some of the last open range land and the only significant creek-based riparian habitat in the Richardson Amphitheater, which is a part of the Colorado River Corridor.”