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Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Breckenridge venue being sued by Summit County cancels all 2015 weddings
Kim Zimmer’s wedding changed forever when she opened an email Saturday, Dec. 6.
Zimmer and her fiancée, Julie, chose a venue in an area known as Golden Horseshoe about 5 miles northeast of Breckenridge.
The venue, run by a company called Dry Gulch, features 40 acres of alpine meadows, trails and views of the Tenmile Range, as well as historic cabins and relics of a mining ghost town established around 1859. The largest gold nugget ever discovered in Colorado — called “Tom’s baby” — was found nearby.
Zimmer loved the location and the fact that the venue would let her bring in kegs from her favorite Breckenridge breweries.
She arranged shuttle transportation for the couple’s 175 guests. The pair decided on a menu with a local chef from All Events and Catering. They sent out save-the-dates and created a website full of the June 26 wedding details.
“The dream wedding was kind of coming together, and then, ugh. It was like being crushed.” Kim Zimmer
Then Zimmer read an email from John T. Cooney, the wedding venue’s owner. It read, “We regret to inform you that due to unforeseen circumstances, Dry Gulch is canceling all weddings for the 2015 season.”
“Having to backtrack and call everyone was, like, ugh,” said Zimmer, 35, with a heavy sigh.
THE LEGAL BATTLE
Cooney, who lives in Boulder, blamed the cancellations on a legal battle with Summit County, and he wrote that Dry Gulch would refund site fees.
Summit County filed a lawsuit on Oct. 1, 2013, claiming the business was operating illegally. Dry Gulch disagrees.
“There’s a dispute, there’s no question about that,” said Wayne Schroeder, Cooney’s lawyer.
According to county records, Cooney bought the Dry Gulch property in 2006 and started operating a special event and wedding business on the land three years later.
That commercial activity was illegal, said county attorney Jeff Huntley, because zoning regulations established the land in 2001 as backcountry, which doesn’t allow commercial land use.
In the lawsuit, the county also claimed Cooney’s business was operating without a license and that structures on the property violated building and development codes.
County officials met with Cooney a few weeks ago, after the mid-November snowstorm, and found 67 building code violations.
Part of a structure collapsed while the group was inside.
“One of our building inspectors made a few choice comments on camera,” Huntley said.
That inspector was standing in a doorway, safely away from the collapse. Assistant county attorney Keely Ambrose described the attached structure as a tent with a wooden frame, which was lacking a required permit.
Schroeder said the tent would have been removed before winter but was left in place for the inspection and buckled under the heavy snow.
County officials also found a wood stove that was sending carbon monoxide into a building and electrical and other work done on the property without the required permits.
“The code violations will be fixed, whatever they may be, if there are in fact code violations,” Schroeder said, adding that he doesn’t know of any injuries that have happened on the property.
The county doesn’t believe any immediate safety threats were present, in which case all activities would’ve been ordered to stop, Ambrose said. In a written statement, however, the county applauded Dry Gulch for canceling weddings and ceasing to expose the public to potential risks.
HISTORIC USE OF
The main issue, Huntley said, is the ongoing commercial use of the property.
Before Cooney bought the land, it was owned by a snowmobile and jeep tour business called Tiger Run Tours.
For decades, the company operated under permits from the U.S. Forest Service, the town of Breckenridge and Summit County to take customers across public lands the three government entities managed.
According to a 2004 Summit Daily article, Tiger Run Tours was established in 1969 by Glenn Campbell, who also owned the nearby historic Revette Mansion. Though the area where Tiger Run Tours operated was rezoned as backcountry in 2001, the county considered the business “legal nonconforming,” essentially grandfathering the commercial land use.
According to the county’s land use and development code, grandfathered uses are considered abandoned if they cease for 180 consecutive days, and abandoned uses can’t be re-established or transferred to other uses that don’t meet the code.
“Their view is the six-month period is still valid,” Schroeder said.
He said state statute seems to nullify the county’s authority to end the commercial use.
“We have the right for tours and so forth on the property itself,” he said. “We want to have the legal issues resolved by the judge as prompt as possible.”
Schroeder said he didn’t want Cooney, who didn’t return calls, to answer questions.
County officials tried to resolve the issue out of court for two years after discovering the noncompliant land use in 2011, Huntley said.
Staff addressed Summit’s four planning commissions — citizen boards that guide development in the county’s four river basins — and asked whether any changes to backcountry zoning regulations should be made.
“It was an attempt to take the temperature, I guess, of the representatives of the community and make sure we were still moving in the right direction,” Ambrose said.
The commissions agreed that the backcountry zoning and land use codes should be left alone, she said, adding that Dry Gulch wasn’t brought up specifically because people often want to use public lands in ways that don’t follow code.
“It pops up all over,” she said.
The process that led to the current Golden Horseshoe zoning laws started close to 20 years ago, Huntley said.
In the mid-1990s, employees with the county, town of Breckenridge and Forest Service met with the community to create a plan that would protect the area’s natural and historic resources while balancing development and recreational opportunities. The process involved at least seven years of work, dozens of public meetings and hundreds of people, he said.
“There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears in this whole process,” Huntley said. “It’s a big deal.”
He wasn’t sure how long the court process will take, but he said he hopes to see some kind of resolution in the next year.
Meanwhile, Dry Gulch is open this winter for ghost town tours and catered skiing and snowshoeing tours.
WEDDING DREAMS CRUSHED
For Zimmer, a Frisco resident who works as a teacher in Vail, the cancelation meant scrambling to find another place to get married.
Dry Gulch charged $5,000 for a wedding with 100 guests and $6,250 for 150 guests. The venue is cheaper than other Summit County locations and allowed couples to make more choices.
Though Zimmer and her fiancée wanted a rustic Colorado wedding, they will now marry in Chicago, closer to where they are from.
“The dream wedding was kind of coming together, and then, ugh,” she said. “It was like being crushed.”
Zimmer said she booked one of the last dates available for 2015, so she imagines other couples are upset. She added that the caterers, flower arrangers, musicians and photographers who had business lined up must be, too.
“I didn’t want to take business out of the county because we love it here so much,” she said