County commits $11 million to new open space |

County commits $11 million to new open space

A herd of elk gathers off Owl Creek Road between Aspen and Snowmass Village.
Aspen Times file photo

Pitkin County commissioners gave the go-ahead Wednesday for Open Space and Trails program officials to spend $11 million to acquire land or agreements that will limit development on two parcels with significant wildlife habitat.

The purchases include a parcel in the midvalley area and a conservation easement on a large ranch in the Crystal River Valley.

The county board first approved the $1 million purchase of a 36-acre parcel of land in Emma, which borders the 9,000-acre Crown Mountain land owned by the Bureau of Land Management.

The parcel — owned by the Payne family — is also close to or borders other Pitkin County-owned conservation easements in the area, as well as the Glassier Open Space and the Emma Farms, said Dale Will, the open space program’s acquisition director.

The acreage contains important elk habitat, which was obvious during a recent visit to the property when officials saw numerous signs of elk, Will said.

The Payne family had the property, which contains one building site, on the market for $1.6 million.

“We were quite happy the family decided to accept our first offer of $1 million,” Will said.

If the county ends up closing on the land — closing cannot begin until commissioners approve the sale on second reading in two weeks — the building site will be eliminated, he said.

After that, the county will survey the parcel to get a better idea of how and where elk and other wildlife use the area, then possibly lease it under the Open Space Program’s agricultural lease program, Will said. The county also might sell the property to an adjoining ranch, though it will only be allowed to be used for agricultural purposes, he said.

“Obviously I’m supportive of this,” said Commissioner George Newman. “It’s in my neighborhood.”

In approving the purchase, Newman pointed to the county’s newest community survey, in which 70 percent of respondents said they wanted to maintain the county’s rural character, while 74 percent said they wanted the county to continue to encourage agriculture and food production.

The second purchase covers a far larger number of acres but isn’t actually a county land purchase.

Rather, commissioners preliminarily approved spending $10 million on a conservation easement on the 1,240-acre Sunfire Ranch in the Crystal River Valley. Owned by the Sewell family since it registered the original 1893 homestead document on the property, it is a highly visible swath of land along Highway 133, Will said.

It is located on Thompson Creek as it comes out of Thompson Canyon, just upstream from the confluence of Thompson Creek and the Crystal River, Will said.

The property was previously divided into 29 separate parcels, with each having a building site attached, that are spread across “the heights of Thompson Canyon,” according to Will. Thirty percent of those sites would be visible from the highway, said Jason Sewell, a fifth-generation member of his family to occupy the property.

In exchange for moving the development off of sensitive wildlife habitat, the owners will receive six buildable lots on a 15-acre bench on a mesa that will be invisible from the road, Will said.

The purchase price will include a $1 million grant from the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund, also known as GOCO, which must be spent by March 2020, Will said.

If the preliminary purchase is officially approved on second reading in two weeks, the county’s Community Development Department will study the parcel under the county’s Open Space Master Plan and come up with a specific plan to be approved by commissioners, he said. That process will take time.

The county won’t close on the property until the Open Space and Trails Board and commissioners approve that master plan.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Newman said.

Sewell thanked commissioners and the county for sticking with the lengthy negotiations associated with the project.

“This is a big key to the wildlife habitat and halting potential development in the future, regardless of who is the owner,” Sewell said. “I hope it’s us.”

Commissioners heaped praise on Sewell for wanting to make the changes to his family’s property.

“Your family is really doing an amazing thing,” Board Chairman Greg Poschman said.

Newman agreed.

“I really want to applaud Jason,” he said. “It’s rare that we get a ranch owner of such a large parcel that wants to put the property under a conservation easement and prevent future development.”