Garfield County wades into feud between Missouri Heights landowners over agritourism operation

Commissioners, county staff weighing permit violation allegations

Merrill and Pam Johnson hang out with the alpacas in the pasture at Cedar Ridge Ranch near Carbondale.

A long-simmering feud between Carbondale-area landowners revolving around Garfield County’s relatively new agritourism provisions boiled up before the Garfield County commissioners Tuesday.

While Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario was on hand at a special commissioners meeting to help maintain order, the crowd managed to keep its cool.

However, some of the comments at the meeting claimed that has not been the case on the ground where the dispute has devolved into threats, verbal attacks, intimidation, trespassing complaints, court actions and even dangerous gunplay.

Commissioners called the meeting to hear from neighbors of Cedar Ridge Ranch regarding concerns around fire danger, water use, noise, light pollution, large event gatherings and various alleged permit violations.

“The biggest problem is there’s no way to enforce the rules,” said neighbor Marc Bassett. “If they’d play by the rules, we’d be just fine with (the operation), but you have to enforce those rules.”

Ranch operators defended themselves, noting there’s never been a documented violation, despite several county inspections.

“The good news is we’re still around,” said Merrill Johnson, who owns and operates the guest ranch with her parents, Randy and Pam Johnson.

“Agritourism is brand new, we’re the first to do it here, and it’s not easy,” she said. “But people are coming from all over the world and are getting a true understanding (of ranch life).”

That includes learning about where food comes from and animal care, and what it takes to make a living in agriculture, Merrill said.

“We’re an open book,” she added of the operation. “If there’s a way we can do better, and be a better business … we’re all in.”

No decisions were made after commissioners allowed people their say.

The board will review the comments and review the various permit requirements and may ask for a follow-up investigation by the county’s Community Development Department, after which a formal hearing could take place, Commission Chairman John Martin said.

One way or another, the commissioners will let the players know how the county plans to proceed, even if it takes no action, he said.

Cedar Ridge Ranch, located on County Road 103 in Missouri Heights northeast of Carbondale, was approved three years ago under the county’s 2013 agritourism provisions that allowed overnight guest operations aimed at developing tourism and providing a life-on-the-ranch experience for visitors.

It’s currently approved for three seasonal yurts and/or tents and one cabin, with the ranch facilities providing hands-on education to visitors about animal care and food production, farm-to-table meals, horseback riding lessons and other amenities.

Adjacent neighbors, however, have leveled complaints about the commercial operation and its impacts to other residents of the area.

Complicating matters is the fact that some adjacent landowners share a private access road to their properties with Cedar Ridge Ranch. The lack of clear property lines in some places has led to trespassing complaints, which neighbors said they’ve tried to control.

“We’re not asking you to revoke their permit,” said one neighboring landowner, Peter Athans. He asked for clarity about use of the access easement and potential shared liability should an accident involving a Cedar Ridge guest occur.

“We knew there was conflict in this area when we arrived,” Athans said of the decision by him and his wife, Liesl Clark, to buy the 35-acre parcel two years ago, which they plan to make into their permanent home. For now, they do make the home available as a vacation rental when they’re away.

“We’re trying to be peacemakers, but we’re met with hostility and aggression,” Athans said.

Another neighbor, Archie Hager, said his property overlooks Cedar Ridge Ranch, and he hasn’t observed any blatant violations.

“We’re in absolute support of your ruling to allow agritourism to occur there,” he said of the commissioners’ 2018 decision to permit the operation. “We bought our house knowing it was there, and we embrace it.”

Commissioner Tom Jankovsky acknowledged there may be some growing pains around allowing guest operations on ranches, and suggested the county can probably shore up its permitting rules and enforcement practices.

“If there are threats to people and they’re fearing for their lives, that’s where the sheriff comes in,” he said. “What we don’t want is for this to blow up to where someone gets hurt.”

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or

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