This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
Nothing ever goes smoothly at Granby Ranch. It’s been four years since the 25-year owner of the 5,000-acre golf-and-ski resort community tried to sell to escape $62 million in debt. Lenders foreclosed on the Brazilian heiress and a pair of St. Louis investors acquired the resort.
The St. Louis developers hired ski resort veteran Andy Wirth and his son Jace to run the ski and golf operations. Andy Wirth and ski racing legend Bode Miller planned to build the first Bode Miller Ski Academy at the Grand County ski area.
Now the Wirths are gone. The academy is not happening. The residents are suing the new owners. The new owners are suing the residents. And the now decades-old drama continues at Granby Ranch, home to about 800 residents.
A law firm involved in Granby Ranch lawsuits filed dozens of open records requests in recent weeks, prompting a complaint to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Elections Division. The division is investigating claims that the law firm – which represents the developers and their Headwaters Metropolitan District in ongoing lawsuits – is acting as an unregistered political committee trying to influence the upcoming election for the homeowners’ Granby Ranch Metropolitan District.
It’s the latest legal mayhem in a community with a long history of turmoil. And it’s yet another metro district battle pitting developers against homeowners in Colorado as lawsuits and a suite of legislation moving through the Colorado statehouse threatens to topple long-standing developer strategies for funding new communities.
“This is a developer abusing the metro district structure to get his way,” said Natascha O’Flaherty, a Granby Ranch homeowner and attorney who has clashed with both the former and new developers of the community. “I see this as an example of so many metro districts in crisis mode because of developer abuses.”
It’s so heated in Granby Ranch that O’Flaherty, who is running for one of three open seats on the homeowner-controlled Granby Ranch Metro District, said resort employees kicked her out of a slopeside restaurant last week.
“They said on behalf of the owners you have to leave the property,” said O’Flaherty, who resigned from the Granby town board in 2021 citing frustration with the town’s negotiations with the new Granby Ranch owners. “We definitely have our political differences but that was a tactic I did not expect.”
The recent election brouhaha started last year when the owners of Granby Ranch, Missouri-based investors Bob and David Glarner, agreed to sell land to two of their Granby Ranch managers. The purchase-option contracts were for small slivers of land next to the railroad tracks. The parcels are inside the homeowners’ Granby Ranch Metro District. Colorado’s complicated metro district laws give people with purchase-option contracts the ability to serve on a district board but that rule is mostly used for new developments with few residents.
Headwaters Metro District is controlled by the owners of Granby Ranch and is the master district overseeing the development. There are several so-called servant districts, including the Granby Ranch Metro District, that are directed by homeowners, that provide tax funding. The developer and homeowner districts in Granby Ranch are not friendly.
Granby Ranch Metro District manager Charles Wolfersberger said the two option contracts would have allowed the Glarners to place two employees on the five-member homeowners district board “to be puppets to do the developer’s bidding without actually owning any land.”
Matt Hoover, the director of mountain operations, filed one of the self-nominating forms for the Granby Ranch Metro District board’s May election. Hoover included a February 2022 purchase agreement signed by him and Bob Glarner. The deal included a $100 down payment and a closing date of Dec. 31, 2026.
That option-to-purchase contract gave Hoover a chance to serve a four-year term on the Granby Ranch Metro District board in the event no other residents stepped up to fill two empty positions.
Hoover’s wife, Roxanne Hoover, works as the general manager Granby Ranch. She submitted an identical purchase-option contract in her self-nomination form to serve a four-year term on the Granby Ranch Metro District board. Both the Hoovers serve on the five-director, developer-controlled Headwaters Metro District.
Both of the purchase agreements were routed through the St. Louis law firm of Husch Blackwell, which represents the Glarners’ GP Granby Holdings and the Headwaters Metro District in a lawsuit filed by the Granby Ranch Metro District in February 2021. That lawsuit in Grand County District Court involves the previous owners’ lenders and Headwaters Metro District canceling a 2005 lease agreement with Granby Ranch homeowners after the 2020 foreclosure. That 50-year lease agreement, which was amended in 2012, imposed a one-time $10,000 amenity fee on every property transaction. Eventually the pot of money would be enough to transfer the ranch’s ski area and golf course to the owners in 2062. Homeowners have paid about $6 million into the lease agreement deal.
Wolfersberger, the accountant who manages the Granby Ranch Metro District, told the Hoovers in an email that their land purchase contracts were “executed for the sole purpose of qualifying yourself as eligible electors of the district.” He denied the Hoovers’ self-nomination forms, saying two other residents of the district self-nominated for the two open board seats.
After Wolfersberger rejected the couple’s self-nominating forms, Husch Blackwell submitted 25 Colorado open records requests to the homeowners district in February and March seeking all documents and board communications relating to the May 2023 election. Several homeowners shared emails that were part of the open records requests with The Colorado Sun.
There are more than 2,000 metro districts in Colorado. The not-quite governmental districts create taxing zones that can finance new construction or maintain existing infrastructure. A lot of new communities in the state are built with metro district debt.
They’ve also become contentious as homeowners clash with developers who have control over spending the tax revenue collected from owners. Last year Colorado lawmakers proposed legislation — House Bill 1363 — that would have given property owners a stronger role in metro districts controlled by developers but the proposed changes stalled. This year, the proposed House Bill 1090 would require more transparency for metro district debt and prevent developers from buying debt they voted to approve. And House Bill 1065 would expand the scope of the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission to include jurisdiction of special districts and school districts.
This month Gov. Jared Polis signed a new law — Senate Bill 110 — requiring new metro districts that cross municipal boundaries to detail a maximum tax rate that can be levied to pay debt and the maximum amount of debt a metro district will carry.
And finally, lawsuits involving metro boards taken over by residents in the Reunion community in Commerce City and Solterra in Lakewood could shift the traditional funding mechanics of metro districts.
The legislation and the lawsuits are “a simmering pot that is just beginning to boil over,” said John Henderson, a Lakewood attorney who co-founded Coloradans for Metro District Reform.
That catalyst for the upheaval in metro districts is a 2021 law – Senate Bill 262 “Special District Transparency” – that required metro district boards to email or mail everyone in the district every time there was an election.
“That literally rang the bell,” Henderson said. “Residents started recognizing there was something wrong. The only way to change course and get reform is to get residents on boards and that is happening.”
Henderson said he expects to see a doubling of residents serving on metro district boards long controlled by developers and their employees.
Wolfersberger last month filed a complaint with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Election Division, arguing that Husch Blackwell’s work with the Hoovers and the open records requests may qualify the law firm as a political action committee. If that’s true, Wolfersberger argued, Hursch Blackwell should be registered with the state and disclose its funding sources.
“I believe district electors have a right to know whether organizations are spending time and resources attempting to influence the outcome of the district’s board election,” Wolfersberger wrote in his March 14 complaint to the state.
A staff response to Wolfersburger’s complaint on March 27 recommended that Chris Beall, the deputy secretary of state, dismiss the complaint, saying the district manager failed to provide enough facts showing the law firm accepted money for its services.
Earlier this month, Beall rejected his staff’s recommendation, arguing that Wolfersberger’s allegations, if found to be true, “would support a factual and legal basis for finding a violation of campaign finance law by Husch Blackwell.”
Beall also noted that board members of the Headwaters Metro District who voted to pay Husch Blackwell for filing those open records requests also could be held accountable for potential violations to campaign finance laws.
He directed the division to more closely investigate the complaint with a report due in early May.
The Daily Sun-Up podcast | More episodes
Meanwhile, the operators and managers of Granby Ranch, Andy and Jace Wirth, left the ski area in December. Last April, after an investment of $4.5 million in the resort and a busy 2021-22 ski season, Jace Wirth credited “a fantastic new ownership group that are not only talented businessmen but also care deeply about the community.” Months later he was gone from Granby Ranch.
Andy Wirth and his son took over management of the ski area in 2020 while it was in foreclosure with a mission to improve the skiing and golfing, increase visitation and revenues and shine the place up for a sale.
“It was a really big lift and we are really proud of what we did there,” he said in a recent interview.
When the Glarners bought Granby Ranch, the Wirths started developing long-term plans for growth. They left under “mutually agreeable circumstances,” Andy Wirth said.
Andy Wirth and Miller in December 2021 announced plans for a $25 million, 125-student nonprofit ski academy at Ski Granby Ranch. They had a curriculum, architectural designs and a plan to offer local kids scholarships.
Andy Wirth said the Bode Miller Ski Academy plan is still “very much alive,” and he expects to announce a new location for the school soon. But Granby Ranch, he said, “just didn’t seem like the best place for the long term.”
Wirth says there was no bad blood with the new owners, but admits there were challenges at Granby Ranch swirling through the Byzantine layers of metro districts on the property.
“It should not have to be that complex. I didn’t think it needed to be that way,” said Wirth, who is now heading up Montana-based Peak Skis with Miller and a growing team of professional skiers.