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Carbondale to weigh in anew on controversial land swap

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Pitkin County Open Space and Trails
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CARBONDALE – Elected officials in Carbondale may reconsider their support for what has become a controversial proposal to swap a chunk of federal land for a privately owned ranch. At the very least, town trustees want to discuss the trade, and they’re inviting plenty of other players in the discussion to the table.

Town trustees last March endorsed the swap, which would put 1,268 acres of Bureau of Land Management property into private hands in exchange for the scenic and wildlife-sensitive Sutey Ranch, a 520-acre piece that would be turned over to the BLM. Both parcels are in Carbondale’s figurative back yard.

Though the town isn’t a party to the trade, it is among various governments and groups that were asked to support the proposal by its proponents – the representatives of billionaire landowner Leslie Wexner, who’s looking to fold the BLM acreage into his Two Shoes Ranch on the north flank of Mount Sopris.

“On the face of it, I think people thought it was a pretty good idea,” said Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig. “Since that time, there’s obviously been a lot more consideration.”

Pitkin County commissioners, who’ve declined to endorse the swap as originally proposed, recently asked Carbondale trustees to reconsider their support, as the town was erroneously told by Wexner’s representatives that the BLM land had been identified for disposal by the agency.

Western Land Group, helping facilitate the trade on Wexner’s behalf, subsequently acknowledged the mistake. That alone isn’t driving Carbondale’s desire to take a second look at the trade, though, Hassig said.

“So much more information has come to light … valid questions have been raised. The board wants to take another look at it,” he said.

“I fully expect a reconsideration.”

The Town Board has scheduled a March 2 discussion of the land swap at Town Hall. Representatives of Pitkin County, Garfield County, the BLM and the Colorado Division of Wildlife are all invited, Hassig said, as are the trade’s proponents. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m.

Local DOW officers appear to have concerns about wildlife issues on both parcels, according to Hassig, though the division hasn’t formally taken part in Pitkin County’s discussions since last spring, when commissioners arranged for visits to both sites.

The BLM has remained silent on the merits of the swap, as well, but it does support acquisition of the Sutey Ranch, north of Carbondale, said Dave Boyd, public affairs specialist for the agency.

“We would love to have the Sutey piece – that would definitely be in the public interest,” he said.

Wexner, through his representatives, attorney Gideon Kaufman and Andy Wiessner of Western Land Group, is seeking congressional approval of the swap – a process that bypasses BLM review.

“We don’t have a position on the proposal because it is being discussed as a legislative proposal,” Boyd said. “We don’t have a position on something like this until we’re asked.”

Pitkin County has been asked, and has balked at endorsing the swap, even though it would protect both parcels from development. Commissioners recently endorsed an alternative idea that would give Wexner 873 acres of the BLM land he desires in exchange for the Sutey Ranch, but would also carve out a piece of Two Shoes Ranch for inclusion in a new open space parcel. The county’s goal is preserving and improving public access on the north flank of Sopris, the midvalley’s iconic peak.

Wexner and his wife have rejected the proposal, leaving things seemingly at a stalemate.

Wexner’s representatives have spent the past year seeking Pitkin County’s support for the swap – an endorsement that will presumably ease its congressional approval – after gaining Garfield County’s nod in the early going.

The Sutey Ranch, purchased by the Wexners with the trade in mind, is located in Garfield County, while the BLM land is in Pitkin County.

Pitkin County commissioners have expressed interest in meeting with their counterparts in Garfield County, and have a standing invitation to do so, according to Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt.

“I think the only way this can move forward productively is to sit down with everyone and have a regional discussion,” she said this week. “I would just love to see everybody sitting around the table and identify what we all agree on so we can move forward and not lose a great opportunity.”

At the end of the day, though, Hassig suspects Pitkin County holds the trump card.

“It’s my belief, whether well-founded or not, that the success of the trade will depend on reaching an agreement with Pitkin County,” he said.

janet@aspentimes.com


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