County deal preserves winter bighorn habitat
Critical habitat for bighorn sheep in the Crystal River Valley is about to be acquired by Pitkin County for preservation.The 10-acre parcel is the Broker Load Mining Claim, a quarter mile up the closure gate at Avalanche Creek. The land’s owner, Aspen resident Frank Goldsmith, has agreed to sell the property to Pitkin County for $200,000.The herd of bighorn sheep that benefits from this transaction is the same that valley residents see from Highway 133 in the winter near Penny Hot Springs. According to Dale Will, director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, the herd stays in the Avalanche Creek area because it is the right altitude, and during the winter its south-facing exposure means snow melts off quickly, exposing their food supply.”When you look at that parcel on wildlife maps, you see that it’s ground zero for the bighorn sheep winter range,” Will said. “It’s where they go to feed and survive during the coldest months of the year.”Goldsmith, who works in real estate development and building, has owned the land for the last five years. He said when he learned about the bighorn sheep habitat, and that his property served as a calving area, he became convinced that the land should be protected.”I’ve lived here for 30 years, and I’ve gotten a lot out of the community myself – spiritually and emotionally,” he said. “I love Aspen, and I like to give back.”The land includes some hefty development rights, he said. The way the parcel is zoned, he would have been able to build a 5,750-square-foot home or up to 15,000 square feet if he went through a special review process. But Goldsmith said he knew he’d never want to develop the land when he found out about the bighorn sheep.But Goldsmith isn’t exactly just taking the $200,000 from the sale and running. As part of the agreement with Pitkin County, Goldsmith will seek a transferable development right for the land and place the right in escrow to allow the county to sell it to recoup its own costs.According to Brian Hazen, a broker at Coates, Reid and Waldron in Aspen, TDRs are currently selling for between $175,000 and $200,000.”We told him that we’ll worry about the TDR market – you sell us the property,” Will said. “He knows how much he’ll realize with the transaction, and he can get on with his life instead of becoming a TDR merchant.”Will said the county is also pleased with the arrangement, knowing it may allow it to save taxpayer dollars on the purchase.The county also has structured the deal so Goldsmith has the option of seeking tax breaks associated with the conservation of the land.The protected land will join others in the area that have already been protected by county purchases through the open space and trails program.”We’re trying to prevent fragmentation of habitat by restricting development in critical winter range areas,” Will said. “Rather than waiting for a development proposal to come in, our goal is to work on important property to avoid these train wrecks before they happen.”Building a house on this particular 10-acre plot wasn’t the only cause for concern, Will notes. Traffic to and from the area would have also impacted the habitat.The mining claim is a piece of private land surrounded by property owned by the United States Forest Service, and although the access gate is closed in the winter, a residence in that area might have compelled the Forest Service to provide winter access.”We’re preserving 10 acres that helps preserve a bigger area of land in lower Avalanche Creek,” Will said. “It’s like when we preserve something up Hunter Creek … it’s not the house [that creates the most damage to habitat], it’s people driving up and down a road that doesn’t have any other residential traffic on it.”Pitkin County commissioners are expected to give the deal initial approval at their meeting on Wednesday.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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