As the James Ranch pursues a land-use permit to grow its commercial operations, La Plata County officials are tasked with figuring out how much noise is too much noise in the peaceful Animas Valley.
The family-owned ranch, 10 miles north of Durango on U.S. Highway 550, is seeking a commercial permit from the county with plans to expand its kitchen and market, obtain a liquor license, lengthen its operating season and possibly allow special events, such as weddings.
The application, submitted last fall, is nearing the end of the review process. It is expected to go before the county Planning Commission before the end of the year. The request proposes a longer business season, increasing winter hours from one to three days a week, with potential to be open year-round.
Over the past few months, county planners has been processing the permit request, an effort that involves checking out the ranch’s weekly Burger and a Band summer concert series.
“There has been some concern with the noise level, and we’re taking noise measurements to figure this out,” County Planner Daniel Murray said.
Live music is hardly new.
About two years ago, when the owners opened the Harvest Grill & Greens food cart, they also introduced a weekly live music night during summer months to entertain customers. But when the owners appealed to the county to expand the business, a few local residents took the opportunity to tell the county that the music has been a little too much for the rural area.
The difficulty lies in that the county, though it has a broad compatibility requirement, does not have specific regulations to address noise levels.
Dan James, who runs the dairy farm with his wife, Becca, said he understands the need for quiet on a personal level.
“We want to be good neighbors and don’t want to impact their lives negatively, and we’re working on reasonable guidelines that fulfill everyone’s goals,” James said. “The fact that there is no noise ordinance makes it difficult and harder to adhere to something.”
Mark and Karen Zempel, who live a quarter-mile from the ranch on Rio Grande Drive, were among those who appealed to the county about the music and future plans at James Ranch. Mark Zempel said they enjoy their neighbors, but they have reservations about future commercial events.
“I was in the hotel business a long time – weddings can get out of hand,” Mark Zempel said. “The James Ranch has a bandstand and amplifiers facing toward our subdivision (La Plata Estates).”
James said the neighbors’ angst came as a surprise, and there are no plans to increase the number of live music events. Whatever the county determines, the goal of the James Ranch will remain focused on delivering farm-to-table food.
The changes proposed under the permit are less about events, and more about improving efficiency for employees and service for customers, James said.
“It’s hard to keep employees seasonally – you lose them in the winter,” James said. “And we want to get a better facility for the restaurant, because they’re cooking in a cracker box right now. The market is tiny and dark. We’re looking to provide a better shopping and dining experience.”
The plan is to consolidate the restaurant and market into one new facility, which will allow the Harvest Grill & Greens to expand its menu.
“We’re working out of a wagon, and it doesn’t work anymore,” said Cynthia James Stewart, who runs the restaurant service.
On a sunny summer day, she said, she averages between 150 and 200 customers.
“Right now, we have no space to offer daily specials; expanding will give us a chance to have more variety.”
Year-round operations would allow her to expand the menu, though Stewart said it will stick to James Ranch values and offer only food produced at the ranch. Provided the permit is approved, Stewart said she wants to break ground this fall with the new market and restaurant complete by next summer.
In the meantime, Thursday live music will continue as the county works through the permit application and identifies appropriate parameters for events and performances.
“I think the solution is acoustic music without amplifiers,” Zempel said. “I hope they (the county) approve the permit, but with stipulations.”
Land-use permit applications are reviewed by the county Planning Commission before going before county commissioners, and the public is always invited to weigh in at these meetings. However, a planning meeting has not yet been scheduled.