Counties spinning out of control at the tree farm |

Counties spinning out of control at the tree farm

The troubles surrounding use of the Mt. Sopris Tree Farm in El Jebel have been so great that it is astounding to think Eagle and Pitkin counties would invent new problems – yet that is exactly what they have done.

Officials from both counties have decided to apply a “liberal interpretation” to the rules governing the size of the buildings they can erect at the tree farm. Their decision does little to build trust in our elected officials.

The congressional act that allowed the Forest Service to trade the 123-acre tree farm to Pitkin and Eagle counties prohibited any additional buildings from being constructed on the property.

The feds didn’t want the counties to turn the tree farm into a dumping ground for any and every facility. The property was meant to be preserved as open space, used for ball fields and recreational facilities and for government offices – as long as the total of all structures didn’t exceed what the tree farm already contained.

Somehow – in a way that only governments can do – that clear intent has now been clouded and opened to debate.

The counties contend they have the right to construct up to 79,000 square feet of “footprint space.” In other words, they believe that buildings can cover 79,000 square feet on the ground floors. (Square footage on second floors and basements wouldn’t be included.)

That interpretation is considered “liberal” because right now there are eight buildings on the tree farm property that total 39,000 square feet of footprint space.

There are also two concrete pads of former buildings that total another 39,000 square feet of footprint space. One of them – a 12,600-square-foot greenhouse – was torn down in 1985 or 1986, according to U.S. Forest Service personnel.

Even though that building disappeared at least eight years before the land swap occurred, county officials contend it should be counted as one of the “existing buildings” included in the congressional limit.

This would be an easy issue to let slide. After all, the vast majority of the 123 acres on the tree farm will be preserved as open space or used for recreation, as was intended.

But the issue shouldn’t be ignored and the counties’ interpretation should be challenged. The issue seems eerily similar to decisions by governments in the upper Roaring Fork Valley to use lands designated as open space for a variety of purposes when they got desperate. Governments have a way of justifying anything if they have painted themselves into a tight enough corner.

You can bet that some bureaucrat somewhere is thinking that the tree farm would be a great place to create an enormous midvalley park-and-ride. The justification, of course, would be that using the property designated as open space for parking is warranted because it helps the valley’s transportation problems.

Midvalley citizens should send the message that such thinking isn’t acceptable. They can start by demanding that the county governments and planners of recreational facilities stick to 39,000 square feet of total footprint space for buildings.

Eagle County has proposed an office building with about 11,000 square feet of footprint. We would suggest that the governments be limited to no more than 15,000 square feet for their combined offices.

The rest of the footprint allotment – 24,000 square feet – should be reserved for recreational amenities such as the existing skateboard park and hockey rink.

That’s an interpretation of the land-exchange legislation that doesn’t require any liberalizing – or any spin.

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