Ashcroft land could be saved if bills gets congressional OK
If all goes as planned, by the end of 2005 the “jewel” of the Ashcroft Ski Touring center will be forever preserved from development.At the same time, the Wildwood School east of Aspen should be preparing for a new neighbor in the shape of a luxury home development along the school’s driveway.Local open space advocates are hoping bills working their way through Congress will win approval this fall and set in motion a complicated land swap involving property scattered throughout the valley.The two critical properties involved are the Ryan parcel in the Castle Creek Valley and land along Highway 82 east of Aspen.The Ryan parcel, at the heart of the Ashcroft Ski Touring center, was bought in 2000 jointly by Pitkin County and Aspen Valley Land Trust for $3.2 million, with the intention of turning it over to the U.S. Forest Service as soon as possible.The Ryan parcel was owned originally by the Theodore “Ted” Ryan, a skiing pioneer who once had dreams of turning the upper Castle Creek Valley into a downhill ski resort. The 35-acre property is surrounded by public lands.There have been several unsuccessful attempts to arrange land swaps between the local and federal bodies involved, but officials are hopeful the current effort will be successful. Dale Will of the county’s Open Space and Trails Department said the deal has the support of a broad range of governments and agencies, including open space advocates, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.The county and the land trust hope to convey the Ryan parcel and about 18 acres of old mining claims to the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service would transfer about six acres of Smuggler “patent remnants” (12 tiny pieces of public land wedged among the mountain’s historic mining claims) to Pitkin County as a way of nearly evening out the amount of property both sides are bringing to the deal.In return for the Ryan parcel and the other property, the county also hopes to acquire 5 1/2 acres of river-bottom land on Highway 82 east of Aspen, next to the Wildwood School’s driveway, and 40 acres of BLM property next to the BRB campground subdivision in the Crystal River Valley.Receipt of the Wildwood parcel, which currently is subject to an ownership dispute between the Forest Service and the Meens family of Grand Junction, is a large part of the county’s strategy underlying the land swap.According to officials, an unknown party sold the parcel in the 1930s to both the Meens family, which was then living in Aspen, and the Forest Service. This put what is known as a “cloud” on the title that until the 1960s did not seem to matter much to either party. Since then, however, land values in Aspen have skyrocketed, and the title has been the subject of a legal battle.But according to Will, the Meens family has indicated it is willing to give up its claim to the land in exchange for a cash settlement. Will said he did not know how much the family wants. Aspen real estate broker Adam Rothberg confirmed he is brokering that part of the deal, but declined to reveal the price tag for the land.Assuming the county and Meens family come to an agreement that leaves the county with a clear title to the land, it then will be sold to a developer. The money will be used to reimburse the county and the land trust for buying the Ryan parcel and settling the Meens family’s claim.The 40 acres of BLM land in the Crystal River Valley is to become part of Pitkin County’s open space inventory.Two bills – introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., and Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and in the House by Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo. – would enable the transfer of the various parcels, along with easements that would prevent the publicly owned lands from being developed.The bills were in the hands of committees in the two houses before the session was adjourned. Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper, who testified before Congress in July about the issue, said she didn’t know when the bills might be either passed or killed.”I’m hoping by the end of the year,” she said, “but I’m known to be very optimistic.”Representatives in the offices of Salazar and Udall said they also were not sure about the bills’ timeline, although they, too, were hopeful action might be taken by the end of the current session.Local officials are hoping the two bundles of land involved in the exchange will essentially be ruled equivalent in value, as required by federal land exchange regulations. That way, no cash would change hands, and the Ryan parcel would be permanently sterilized from future development, as would the BLM land along the Crystal River and the acreage on Smuggler Mountain.But for Clapper, the benefit of all the wheeling and dealing is that, “We’ll come out about breaking even … it actually just cleans up a lot of land use.”If the land swap ultimately is approved, Will noted, the county will have to ask voters for permission to transfer ownership of the Ryan parcel to the Forest Service, since the parcel was partially purchased using open space funds.John Colson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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