City gives up on Smuggler
Aspen is giving up on its quest to preserve private land on Smuggler Mountain as open space after the city’s most recent offer – $12 million in cash for about 136 acres – was turned down by landowner George “Wilk” Wilkinson.The council agreed to end negotiations with Wilkinson after meeting behind closed doors Monday, according to John Worcester, city attorney.”I think calling it quits is right for now,” said Mayor Helen Klanderud, expressing hope that someday the city and Wilkinson can strike a deal.”I’m disappointed,” she added. “I really wish that we could have arrived at an agreement.”Smuggler, rising up on Aspen’s northeast flank, is popular with winter and summer recreationists heading up the mountain or into the Hunter Creek Valley. On a typical day, Smuggler Mountain Road attracts a steady stream of hikers and, during the summer, mountain bikers. Aspen and Pitkin County had hoped to jointly purchase Wilkinson’s land as open space, with the city taking the lead in an effort that began when it offered $10 million for the property in March 2003. An appraisal at the time set the value of Wilkinson’s property at $8.1 million.Wilkinson said the offer was rejected by a potential buyer who had an option on the property.Worcester met recently with Wilkinson and upped the offer to $12 million for all of Wilkinson’s interests in Smuggler, including land, water and mineral rights. “He’d have no interest in Smuggler Mountain,” Worcester said.That offer “doesn’t fly,” said Wilkinson, who countered with a complex proposal.Wilkinson said he’s willing to sell several parcels on the bottom of the mountain to the city for $12 million, some land on the face of the mountain to the county for $9 million and donate some property as open space. His proposal would retain a homesite where he’d like to build a house of 6,000 to 7,000 square feet, plus a guest house and several outbuildings.”I pretty much stopped trying to figure out what his counteroffer was when the first two items totaled $21 million,” Worcester said.”They’re passing up a pretty good opportunity here,” Wilkinson said yesterday. “I kind of gave them a nice counteroffer.”But Klanderud said the city, which had earmarked much of the purchase power from its parks and open space tax for the Smuggler purchase, needs to move on. “For right now, we need to move forward and direct our open space board to make recommendations on other properties,” she said.There are other potential open space opportunities that may disappear if the city continues to budget for a Smuggler purchase even though the two sides are far apart, Worcester added.Until yesterday, the city had not made its offers to Wilkinson public. “I think the council felt that the public deserved to know what our efforts were and why we don’t feel that any further negotiations would be fruitful,” Worcester said.”We believe our offer was reasonable,” Klanderud said. “He is apparently not interested in selling at that price.”I believe our feeling is his expectations are unrealistic.””We’re not going to pay wildly unrealistic amounts of money for this property,” added Councilwoman Rachel Richards, who also expressed disappointment in the outcome after the city put nearly $400,000 into attorneys fees and the appraisal in its attempt to acquire Smuggler.Condemnation not an optionThe City Council never debated condemning Wilkinson’s property in order to acquire it, according to Worcester. Now, that option is no longer available. A new law passed by the state Legislature this spring prohibits a municipality from condemning land outside its borders for open space unless the landowner consents.The law also bars Aspen from contributing to the acquisition of the Smuggler land should Pitkin County condemn it, though the county has made it a policy to acquire open space through negotiation, not condemnation, anyway.The elimination of condemnation as a backup option made negotiations for Smuggler more difficult, according to Worcester.”Once you take that condemnation power away from us, you’re operating in a complete vacuum. There’s no parameters to the negotiation,” he said.Wilkinson, who has long butted heads with Pitkin County in attempts to develop his land, lobbied state lawmakers to pass the new legislation on extraterritorial condemnation.On Tuesday, though, he expressed surprise that the city is admitting defeat and said he’ll continue to work with the county toward getting much of the property dedicated as open space.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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