County, AVLT at impasse over Smuggler Mountain trail
The Verena Mallory Trail on Smuggler Mountain may be closed for good this fall after Pitkin County, the city of Aspen and the Aspen Valley Land Trust failed to resolve a dispute about its status.
Pitkin County decided this week against asking a judge to determine if the trail should remain open or be closed. The jug-handle trail off of the South Hunter Creek Trail has been popular with mountain bikers and hikers since 1992.
Aspen Valley Land Trust Executive Director Martha Cochran said there is no immediate plan to close the trail because the land trust thought the issue was going a different direction. Closure signs haven’t been ordered and no plans have been made with a reclamation crew, she said.
“It is the board’s intent to comply with our legal obligation as soon as possible,” Cochran said.
Roots of dispute
Fritz and Fabi Benedict donated the land where the trail is located to the Aspen Valley Land Trust. While checking its compliance with restrictions on its inventory of properties, the land trust determined last year that conditions of the gift prohibit the trail.
The land trust board of directors twice voted to extend a deadline to close the trail while it worked to resolve the issue with the city and county.
Pitkin County disagrees with the land trust’s assessment that the trail isn’t allowed and urged the land trust in a letter this week to ease up on a “hyper-technical interpretation of the deeds.” County officials noted in the letter that Fritz Benedict created the trail for the public before he donated the property to the land trust.
“It was never the intention of the Benedicts to restrict access to the property, to eliminate the trail through the property or expose the public to hazards and risk of injury when enjoying the property,” the letter from the county said. “We are confident of this conclusion as a result of Pitkin County and the City of Aspen’s close relationship to the Benedicts during their lifetimes.”
land trust: Conditions of gift are clear
The county contends that the Aspen Valley Land Trust has the power to “exercise independent judgment” on how the property is managed. In the county’s eyes, that means the land trust can allow the trail to be used as it has for the past 24 years. The trail was dedicated in 1993 in the name of Verena Mallory, an Aspen girl who died of leukemia.
“Pitkin County believes that AVLT’s choice to ignore the full breadth of circumstances surrounding the Verna Mallory Park parcel and trail and concentrate on a hyper-technical interpretation of the deeds to (Aspen Valley Land Trust’s predecessor) is a conscious election of AVLT to ignore the true and obvious wishes of the Benedicts,” the county letter said.
The land trust maintains that as the recipient of the property, it has to honor the conditions that dictated the gift or risk its credibility as a land trust.
In a letter reply to Pitkin County on Thursday, the land trust noted that the land gift came with the condition that “no trails of any kind shall ever be established or permitted to remain.”
Cochran and the board have stated numerous times that the condition isn’t ambiguous. They have offered to solve the issue by jointly seeking a declaratory judgment in court.
“The AVLT board finds the statement that the county and city had a close relationship with the Benedicts and therefore know that the Benedicts’ intentions were contradictory to the legal agreements they provided and signed to be particularly unconvincing since Fritz Benedict was a member of the AVLT board at the time of donation,” the letter said.
There’s always condemnation
The county’s letter says litigation isn’t the way to resolve a dispute between the two organizations, which share a goal and a partnership to protect properties. The public would be funding both sides of the dispute through taxes to the county and contributions to the Aspen Valley Land Trust, the county letter said.
“Pitkin County prefers to work toward a negotiated consensus to preserve the public enjoyment of the Verena Malloy Park parcel and trail, and to that end we are open to explore any framework to resolve this controversy,” the county’s letter concluded.
The land trust responded that agreements between it and donors aren’t subject to “negotiated consensus” based on political pressure from outside forces.
The land trust said in its letter it was surprised by the tone of the county’s letter and disappointed the county is unwilling to seek an objective, third-party legal resolution. It suggested an alternative route out of the dispute.
“(We) remind you that if the loop trail is of critical importance to the county, the county has the option of condemnation,” the letter said.
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