ASPEN - Pitkin County agreed Tuesday to throw its support behind a controversial land exchange involving two properties outside of Carbondale, bringing to a close a roughly four-year debate that divided commissioners at the outset and divided them at the end.
At the start, only Commissioner Jack Hatfield was willing to back the proposed land swap; in the end, only Commissioner Michael Owsley continued to oppose it. Their colleagues admitted to struggling with the proposal and said the county's lone resistance helped improve the deal from the public's perspective.
With Tuesday's 4-1 vote, commissioners approved an agreement with wealthy landowners Leslie and Abigail Wexner that makes the land exchange - a separate, proposed deal between the couple and the Bureau of Land Management - palatable (see below). The county will go on record in support of the exchange with a letter to the BLM.
"Land exchanges should never be taken in haste or lightly, and I don't believe we have done that," Commissioner George Newman said. "We were one of the only organizations that held the proponents' feet to the fire."
"It is well worth noting that our resistance has led to improvements in the proposal," Commissioner Rachel Richards said. "I know at the end of the day, I can go to sleep with this decision."
For Hatfield, who said taking the contrary stand in supporting the land swap when his fellow commissioners opposed it was the most difficult thing he had to do as a public official, voting in favor of the deal was his final action as a commissioner before stepping down from his third and final term.
"It's very meaningful for me as my last vote on this board to be able to vote yes on this land-exchange letter," Hatfield said.
Newly elected Steve Child was sworn in as the new commissioner in District 4 a short time later.
Two area wildlife officers with Colorado Parks and Wildlife praised the land exchange and the protections it offers to the main components of the swap - roughly 1,200 acres of BLM land that would be folded into the Wexners' Two Shoes Ranch and the 557-acre Sutey Ranch north of Carbondale, which would come into BLM ownership.
"For us, it is a win for wildlife whether it is on the exchange parcel or the Sutey parcel. Both are major, major wintering areas," wildlife officer John Groves said.
Others praised the protection the BLM land will see under private ownership.
"I'm a little ashamed that we crucify people who have money like they're not going to be good stewards," Commissioner Rob Ittner said. "The idea that we have to defend ourselves against billionaires to me is disgusting."
But two residents who appeared to speak to commissioners Tuesday both made reference to the Wexners' financial resources.
John Bender said the land swap undervalues the benefits the Wexners will realize if the land swap goes through and suggested that the community could have secured $20 million as part of the deal to address other issues.
Hawk Greenway, a member of the county Open Space and Trails board who stressed he was speaking as a private citizen, read a lengthy prepared statement outlining his objections to the county's decision to back the land swap.
"This is not a one-off deal," he said, predicting other wealthy individuals will seek ownership of public lands and that the Wexner exchange will set a "disastrous precedent."
"I would beg you to reconsider your support for this exchange," Greenway said, arguing that the commissioners' letter of endorsement "adds the patina of acceptability to a deal which is basically unacceptable."
Had the BLM indicated that it wanted to dispose of the land bordering Two Shoes Ranch on the north flank of Mount Sopris, the county likely would have done everything it could to acquire the property, he said.
"Pitkin County has purchased very similar lands of half the size from a willing seller for roughly three times the trade value of all of the assets listed as 'trade' by the proponents," he said. "There is something wrong with holding a private fire sale for public lands in Pitkin County."
Greenway and other members of the open space board have voiced their opposition to the land swap, as had most of the commissioners, putting county officials at odds with other local governments, recreation and conservation groups that have all backed the proposed swap.
Owsley reiterated his unwavering opposition Tuesday.
"I can't see the acquisition of public lands by private individuals as a good direction for us," he said, arguing that lands held by public entities enjoy long-term protections that aren't guaranteed with private lands that can be sold and resold.
"I don't think we can cherish this land by privatizing it," Owsley said.