On Aug. 2, Loveland City Council gave its unanimous approval to a proposed property exchange with local developer Troy McWhinney that will bring nearly 50 acres of new open space land to the city.
But the former owner of one of the properties involved in the deal has cried foul.
Loveland native Kelly Bonser, who grew up on a ranch just south of County Road 20E, said the city promised to preserve her family’s homestead as open space when it purchased the 22-acre parcel from her and her sister in late 2018. Now she feels like she was misled by city staff about their ultimate intentions for the property, and worries that the new owner will spoil the site.
“It wasn’t meant for Troy McWhinney,” she said. “It was meant for the people to have it. And that’s the part that is a little hard to swallow.”
Bonser’s parents, Willis (Bill) and Joan, purchased the original 169-acre homestead in 1950, with assistance from Bill’s boss, D.R. Pulliam.
Over the decades, the pair and their four children raised cattle on the property, and were actively involved in the local agricultural community. Joan was involved in several women’s clubs, while Bill served on the Larimer County Fair board for many years, founding the youth rodeo. He was also a longtime member of the Larimer County Sheriff’s Posse.
In the 1990s, he retired from ranching and sold most of the property to Coulson Excavating for a gravel pit, but left 22 acres intact. Bonser and her sister Marty then inherited the property after their parents’ deaths in the early 2000s.
By 2016, the Bonser sisters were ready to move on from the ranch, but wanted to honor the family legacy of land stewardship and service to the Loveland community.
“My vision was to keep that view corridor open, because what’s unique about that piece of property is it sits down in that valley,” she said. “So even though we’ve got all this tremendous development around the perimeter, when you go down there, you kind of feel like you’re still out in the country. And that, quite honestly, is one of the best places on that side of town to watch an unobstructed sunset.”
They approached the city about buying the property for open space, but it took two years—and a bevy of competing offers—for the deal to finally come together.
“I left a bunch of money on the table,” she said. “I actually had more offers from developers that I just absolutely turned down. And that’s when I finally called the city and said, ‘it’s for sale, and I’ve got all these people that are wanting it, because they knew what the potential could be as far as development’. And then I said, ‘but I want you guys to have it because I want it to stay open.’”
The sale closed in late 2018 for $980,000. Bonser said that she signed the deal with the understanding that the city was planning to use the acreage to establish a trailhead that would serve an eventual extension of the Big Thompson regional trail. She was less concerned about the remaining buildings, but pleased when city staff discussed using them for outdoor education.
But with the trade proposal with McWhinney pending, she feels betrayed. She also questioned the timing of the transaction, coming so soon after the McWhinney company announced plans to drill for oil and gas on an adjacent parcel. If the city relinquishes ownership of the residence, it also relinquishes its standing as a property owner to object to the proposed development.
“I think my place was always going to be used as a pawn,” she said. “But I was misled to believe that I was going to be able to honor my family, and it was pretty clear that my dad and mom both had contributed to the community quite a bit.”
Loveland Open Lands Division Manager Marilyn Hilgenberg refuted Bonser’s contention about being misled, saying that the city has always planned to use the property for trails and open space and that won’t change when the ownership does.
As a condition of the exchange, the city is retaining a 15-acre conservation easement “with a lot of teeth” that will prohibit almost all development on the 20-acre site.
“You can’t build a restaurant, you can’t drill a well pad,” Hilgenberg said. “We’re trying to put controls and methods and everything in the contract and in the conservation easement, to make sure that the things that she’s worried about the most, that those are covered, and that there’s a legal protection, that that’s how the site’s going to be used.”
She said she understands Bonser’s frustration with the proposed exchange and the fate of her family’s land, but, ultimately, the deal was too good for the city to pass up.
“We fully believe we are preserving the property like it is today,” she said. “And then, we also get another almost 50 acres more, and we’re not spending taxpayer dollars to purchase it separately. And so, from our perspective, you know, this is a management decision to use it as a city resource.”
The exchange agreement isn’t quite a done deal yet. On Aug. 16, the proposal faces a second vote in City Council. Bonser said she plans to be there, and hopes to have a chance to speak up for her family’s legacy.
“I also feel that the public has a right to know that what was purchased and was supposed to be kept as an open space is now going to be traded to developer and, possibly, he has the right to sell it to someone else,” she said.
Troy McWhinney did not respond to a request for comments.