Deal scraps rail line conservation easement |

Deal scraps rail line conservation easement

Heather McGregor

A tentative deal reached Tuesday between state and local officials would cancel the controversial conservation easement on the Roaring Fork Valley rail corridor.

A letter of intent that outlines the deal, which is yet to be formally approved, was signed Tuesday by Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris, chairwoman of the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority, and Will Shafroth, director of Great Outdoors Colorado.

The Aspen Valley Land Trust, holder of the conservation easement, was not a party to the deal.

Conservation values on the rail corridor, including a trail, will be directly protected by RFRHA, said Bob Noone, the authority’s attorney.

U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, voiced his hearty support for the deal. He has promised to pursue federal funding for a transit project on the corridor if the conservation easement is brought under the control of elected local government officials.

“I support this new legal arrangement because it honors the first principle of the original bargain agreed upon by all of the parties: that the corridor would be run by locally elected officials who are accountable to the public and subject to open meetings laws,” McInnis said.

McInnis first complained about the conservation easement two years ago. The deal struck this week, he said, puts the railroad corridor transit project “back on track.”

The conservation easement was created when Great Outdoors Colorado offered $2 million in a Legacy Grant to help local governments meet the $8.5 million price tag for the 33-mile corridor. The first $1 million was paid at the time of purchase and the second $1 million was to be paid when RFRHA completed a comprehensive plan for the corridor.

Aspen Valley Land Trust, a private, nonprofit group, held the conservation easement and monitored activities on the corridor to make sure conservation values were protected.

But McInnis charged that the land trust had no public accountability, and said he wouldn’t push for $85 million in federal funding for a transit project as long as the easement was privately held.

The effort to convert the conservation easement was sidelined, however, when an outside company attempted a hostile purchase of the rail corridor. That matter is still pending in federal court, but RFRHA officials resumed negotiations on the conservation easement last fall.

Under the deal, RFRHA-member governments will repay the first $1 million of GOCO’s grant into an escrow account. GOCO will get the money when it formally disapproves the comprehensive plan and withdraws its promise for the second $1 million.

In turn, GOCO has tentatively agreed to issue a new grant of $1.5 million, along with interest earned on the first $1 million, to fund conservation and trail values in the corridor.

RFRHA’s obligation to protect those values would be legally binding and spelled out in the form of a covenant on the deed. GOCO’s board can monitor compliance, and RFRHA must report regularly to the state agency on its activities related to conservation and trails.

The deal was approved in concept by the RFRHA board in February, and negotiations with GOCO officials ensued.

Aspen Valley Land Trust’s positive response will be critical to a smooth transfer of the easement, Noone said.

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