Appeals officer upholds plan for Forest Service sale in Aspen
July 24, 2013
The U.S. Forest Service's Washington, D.C., headquarters has denied an appeal by an Aspen homeowner to try to prevent the agency from selling an acre of its administrative site at Seventh Street.
Appeal Deciding Officer Leslie A.C. Weldon upheld the decision by the White River National Forest, and approved by the Rocky Mountain Region office, to sell about 1 of the 3 acres it owns on the high-profile corner in Aspen.
An administrative appeal was filed by William "Gene" Powell, a real estate developer and technology entrepreneur from San Antonio. Powell objected in May to the Forest Service plan to subdivide the property into five lots and sell them at a public auction. His appeal claimed, in part, that the houses built on the lots would obstruct his and others' views of Shadow Mountain and Aspen Mountain. He also contended that the houses, which will be restricted by zoning to no more than 3,500 square feet, would be out of character with the neighborhood.
"All appeal issues you raised were considered," Weldon wrote. "The issues have no merit and the record is adequate to support the director's decision. The decision is affirmed."
A public auction will be held Aug. 27 unless legal action is taken to prevent it.
The Forest Service wants to carve out and sell 1 acre on the corner of North Eighth and West Smuggler streets. Powell owns a home across West Smuggler Street from the site.
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In his appeal, Powell asked that the Forest Service place deed restrictions on the property before the auction to restrict use to single-family housing of a size, quality and value comparable to other homes in the neighborhood. Powell contends that the average size of the lots proposed by the Forest Service is 7,500 square feet while private lots across Smuggler Street range from 12,000 to 18,000 square feet.
An appeal reviewing officer responded that the Forest Service decided to create five separate lots to maximize the sale value while still keeping the property consistent with the character of the neighborhood. Once the land passes from federal to private lands, city of Aspen land-use regulations will apply, including height restrictions of 25 feet, the reviewing officer wrote. The new houses on the old Forest Service grounds likely will be about 3,500 square feet, the reviewing officer added. The neighborhood currently has residences ranging from 3,000 and 12,000 square feet.
The White River National Forest's plan to sell the 1 acre of land was approved by the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region. Powell's appeal of the regional office's decision was handled by the Washington, D.C., office, so he exhausted his appeals. He will be forced to file a lawsuit if he wants to continue the fight. A reporter notified Powell on Monday that the decision was upheld, but he didn't provide any comment.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the sale of the Aspen property is important because it will raise funds to redevelop offices, a visitors' center, bunkhouses for seasonal workers and "transitional" housing for year-round employees on the remaining 2 acres of the site.
The existing facilities "are woefully inadequate for the public and our employees," Fitzwilliams said, and none can be salvaged. It would cost more to try to refurbish them than scrap them or build new structures, he said.
The Forest Service felt it was important to maintain a highly visible location in Aspen for a visitors' center. It also needs an office in Aspen rather than consolidating with facilities farther downvalley, Fitzwilliams said. The agency is busiest during summers, when a combination of seasonal workers and volunteers help year-round workers staff and maintain the Maroon Lake facilities. Field operations for wilderness rangers and trail workers also are based in Aspen. Selling the entire 3-acre site wasn't deemed a wise option, Fitzwilliams said.
"We just didn't think it would be wise to give up a presence in an internationally known resort," he said.
The money raised at the auction will be devoted to the redevelopment and other projects in the White River National Forest, according to Fitzwilliams. A law passed by Congress allows the money raised by the sale of unneeded assets to be used anywhere in the Rocky Mountain region, but regional leaders have said the funds will be used in the specific forests where sales take place, according to Fitzwilliams. He wouldn't say how much the Forest Service anticipates collecting from the sale of the five lots. They can be purchased individually or in combinations. The Forest Service retained the rights to decline to accept bids on some or all of the property.
The Government Services Administration is handling the sale and auction. Real estate agents from as far away as London have inquired about the property, Fitzwilliams said. The upper-valley real estate market is bouncing back, so the Forest Service hopes to raise a significant sum from the sale. The agency has 11 other properties it is considering offering for sale in the White River National Forest.
"This sale is a weathervane for what we can expect the program to be on the entire forest," Fitzwilliams said.
If the sale proceeds, the forest supervisor's office will complete the design for the redevelopment and the existing buildings will be scrapped in about one year, Fitzwilliams said. Construction would start later in the summer with the goal of moving into the new facilities in 2015, he said.