County moves to protect Crystal Valley ranch land
A creative land deal will allow Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program to save about 400 acres of Crystal Valley ranch land, if all goes well.
The county commissioners will decide Wednesday whether to allow the Open Space program to loan $4.6 million to another conservation organization for the purchase of a 434-acre ranch south of Carbondale.
An agreement calls for the Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit organization based in Boulder, to combine a half million dollars of its own with the Open Space money to purchase the property from the Ulrych family for market value. Instead of turning the land into six or more lots, the Conservation Fund will sell the property as two parcels and place a conservation easement on each to prevent development beyond one house on each.
The placement of the houses will be such that they will be inconspicuous or invisible from Highway 133, a Colorado Scenic Byway. The agricultural land would continue to be farmed under the conservation easements.
“We’re not hoping to get all of our money back, because the value of the ranch when we bought it was based on six development rights,” said Open Space director Dale Will. The owner wanted to sell outright for the highest possible price, he said.
“In rough terms, we’re hoping to get half our investment back out,” Will said. The Open Space program will hold the conservation easements, legal documents preventing any further development and any use of the land other than ranching.
The Conservation Fund is being brought in because the bylaws of the Open Space program forbid the resale of any property purchased by the program. Will said the agreement is flexible enough so that if the first parcel sold brings in what’s considered enough money, the Open Space board and the county commissioners can deny the sale of any further property and assume ownership of the remainder.
“If the first of the homesites sells for a lot,” Will said, “we may just say `OK, we’re happy’ and keep the other one.”
The property is located on both sides of the Crystal River and both sides of Highway 133. The southern border of the portion to the west of the river is Thompson Creek. On the east side, the property extends a bit further south.
According to an Open Space document, the land is home to such wildlife species as mule deer, elk and bald eagles. An existing ranch house would continue to be occupied by a ranch manager who irrigates the pastures. Hay fields on the property are leased and would continue to be under the agreement, Will said.
The program would like to keep a trail easement on the east side of the river, on the old Crystal River Railroad grade, Will said. Public access would be maintained on land between the highway and the river, he added.
Open land preservation in the Crystal River Valley is a stated priority of both the Open Space Board of Trustees and the Pitkin County Commissioners, Will said. The purchase of the Ulrych ranch is influenced by that directive, and by a policy which recommends spending money to preserve land before prices rise.
The Open Space and Trails program was reauthorized by Pitkin County voters in last November’s election for a period of 10 years. In discussions prior to placing reauthorization on the ballot, the county’s Financial Advisory Board recommended that the program be continued for 10 years rather than the proposed 20. The FAB advised Open Space to make an intensive effort to purchase land at the earliest opportunities, because land prices are increasing by an average of 12 percent annually.
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