Carbondale-area land swap lands in Pitkin County’s lap
July 11, 2009
CARBONDALE – A proposed land swap involving close to 2,000 acres in the Carbondale area – including a coveted piece of property that isn’t even in Pitkin County – is now in Pitkin County’s lap.
The trade would turn 1,268 acres of Bureau of Land Management acreage on the north flank of Mount Sopris over to billionaire retailer Leslie Wexner in exchange for the 513-acre Sutey Ranch, located north of the Red Hill recreation area outside of Carbondale.
The BLM land is in Pitkin County; it is public land that would be relinquished in exchange for acreage outside the county. Sutey Ranch is in Garfield County.
The brokers of the proposed deal intend to seek an act of Congress to execute the swap, and have secured the support of various governments, including Carbondale, Eagle County and Garfield County, along with the Aspen Valley Land Trust and the Red Hill Council.
“We’re trying to figure out what Pitkin County’s objection is, or why they would object to it,” said AVLT executive director Martha Cochran, when various government officials made a site visit to both properties in May.
“This is the most puzzling thing that I’ve every encountered in 30 years of dealing with government,” said Andy Wiessner of Western Land Group, Inc., which is attempting to broker the land deal for Wexner.
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The county hasn’t formally objected to the trade, but has not been quick to endorse it, either. After various groups lobbied in favor of the exchange at a commissioner session last spring, a site visit was arranged. Since then, the county Open Space and Trails Board has discussed the proposal behind closed doors, and the board and commissioners also met jointly in executive session.
The Open Space Board and commissioners will meet on July 21 at 10 a.m. to discuss the trade in public.
“There’s a lot to consider, certainly,” said Commissioner Michael Owsley. “I think there are really passionate feelings about acquiring the Sutey Ranch through this exchange in Carbondale. I think we’ll look at how it affects Pitkin County – that’s our charge.”
Proponents of the deal will host an open house Sunday from 5-7:30 p.m. at the Sutey Ranch (RSVPs are necessary; call 927-6521). The ranch is tucked away, off County Road 112; organizers want to show area residents what they stand to gain in the trade, said James Breasted, a member of the Red Hill Council.
The ranch would facilitate a second access to the popular Red Hill trail system, the council hopes, but what recreational pursuits would actually be allowed on the property have yet to be determined.
Commissioners, pondering how much say they will have on land in Garfield County that would come under BLM control, voiced concerns about motorized uses and wildlife impacts during the site visit.
“There needs to be some assurance as to the types of uses – what does or doesn’t end up here,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards during the visit.
Cochran suggested wintertime restrictions on recreation at the ranch would be appropriate, given its deer and elk habitat. A Colorado Division of Wildlife representative voiced support for keeping the land “pretty much recreation-free…definitely in wintertime.”
A management plan for the property will come after the trade, but desired restrictions on use can be part of the legislation submitted to Congress, Wiessner assured the group.
Publicly, county commissioners have said little about their thoughts on the swap, but Hawk Greenway, chairman of the Open Space and Trails board, penned a lengthy guest opinion, submitted to various local newspapers, opposing the trade. In it, Greenway said taking the trade to Congress is an attempt to “fast track” an exchange without an environmental review or the public input usually involved in the disposal of public lands.
He also questioned whether the Sutey Ranch, purchased by Wexner for $6.5 million, was equal in value to the BLM land he wants to acquire.
Though the latter property is not easily accessed, it does connect to public land. Much of it also splits acreage that Wexner has spent tens of millions of dollars purchasing, making the strip a valuable piece within the land he has already amassed, Greenway argued. He panned the precedent that would be set by the privatization of public lands for “deep-pocket” landowners.
A federally required appraisal will take place if the trade wins congressional approval, Wiessner countered. If the BLM parcel is worth more than the Sutey Ranch, Wexner must make up the difference; if the Sutey property is worth more, Wexner will essentially donate the difference in value, Wiesser said.
If the public wants the Sutey Ranch, Greenway contends, the public should step up and buy it. However, he acknowledged, Garfield County has not established an open space program to help fund such purchases.
“It’s a chance for Pitkin County to do us an enormous favor,” said Breasted, suggesting the land to be gained from the public’s perspective is preferable to the hard-to-reach strip of dense brush at the base of Sopris, regardless of county boundaries.
“To us who live in Carbondale, Red Hill is our Hunter Creek,” said Breasted, referring to Aspen’s popular backcountry playground.
Tim McFlynn, also an Open Space Board member, came out in support of the swap in a letter last spring.
“The location of century-old county boundaries should not trump the landscape when viewed from the perspective of the Roaring Fork Valley as a whole,” he wrote.
Pitkin County’s stance on the matter presumably will carry some weight.
“It does matter what Pitkin County thinks,” Wiessner said. “That’s not to say Congress would refuse to do it, but it would make it much, much harder.”