Droste the priciest open space buy yet for Pitkin County

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Robb Williamson

SNOWMASS VILLAGE – The $18 million negotiated price to purchase 742 acres of open space in the hills above the Brush Creek Valley near Snowmass Village would be the single largest sum paid for a parcel in a deal orchestrated by Pitkin County.

Local officials, however, said Tuesday they believe the price is reasonable.

A year ago, county commissioners approved the development of nine homes on the ridge separating the Brush Creek and Owl Creek valleys, on land owned by brothers Peter and Bruce Droste. With that big hurdle to development out of the way, the potential to preserve land as open space, at least at a price within reach, would typically disappear, noted Dale Will, director of Open Space and Trails for the county. But, even as Peter Droste left the county commissioners’ meeting room in August 2009, approval in hand, he indicated he was open to further discussion about conserving the land.

“It was divine providence that no sooner than the approvals were done that the market for high-end vacant land dried up,” Will said.

And, the development approvals established a starting point for discussions that didn’t exist when the development potential on the property remained unresolved, he said.

“In an ironic way, it was the land-use approval that let us have a rational discussion about how to appraise it,” he said.

The $18 million is significantly less than the landowners had offered as a price in previous talks, Will added.

A recent appraisal arranged by the county pegged the value of the property at between $19 million and $21 million, though the land had most lately been listed for sale for nearly $23 million. Individually, though, five of the lots were each listed for $15 million, and four of them were listed at $10 million apiece.

The county’s latest assessment put the market value of the lots at $1.25 million each, according to the assessor’s office. The sum is discounted to take into account the cost of extending a road and other infrastructure to the sites.

The Snowmass Village Town Council has pledged to contributing $2 million toward the purchase, with the county Open Space and Trails Program anticipating a $10 million allocation. The city of Aspen has been asked to put in $2.5 million, though it has agreed to contribute $1 million thus far. A Great Outdoors Colorado grant application could bring in $2.5 million this year and perhaps another $1 million in 2011. Will anticipates seeking some private funding, as well.

Snowmass Village Mayor Bill Boineau said Tuesday he believes the property is a worthy investment, though the price of open space is always a question mark.

“It is a concern to me, are we paying too much for open space properties – just in general,” Boineau said. “If you lived anyplace else, there wouldn’t even be the thought of purchasing this.”

It was a site visit to the ridge, with its views of the surrounding valleys and mountains, that convinced Boineau the Droste property is worth the investment.

“Before then, I was suggesting to people, let them develop those homes up there,” he said. “When I got up there – it’s an incredible piece of property. It is definitely one of the places where you can see everything.”

“This property, it’s two miles of that ridgeline,” Will added. “You sort of can’t believe how much land is up there.”

It’s not surprising that the Drostes wanted to secure development approvals and test the market before talking anew with the county about open space, said Commissioner George Newman, county board chairman.

“I don’t think that we inflated the price by going under contract after the approvals,” he said.

The proposed purchase is structured into phases.

The county must pay $500,000 to lock in its option to purchase the property and acquire 108 acres that will allow a link from the Cozy Point South open space, at the east end of the Brush Creek Valley, over the ridge to the Owl Creek Trail. It also secures a missing link in the soft-surface equestrian trail in the Brush Creek Valley.

By the end of 2010, $9.5 million is due to purchase five of the nine approved ridge-top lots. The remaining four lots may be acquired next year for $8 million.

The price tag surpasses the $15 million the county and city of Aspen paid for 280 acres on Smuggler Mountain, though all the various individual acquisitions that have occurred on Smuggler exceed the purchase price for the Droste property, Will said.

Since 1991, Snowmass Village, Aspen and the county have acquired more than 1,500 acres in and near the Brush Creek Valley and preserved another 662 acres through the purchase of conservation easements, at a total cost topping $20 million. That doesn’t include the latest deal – a purchase that includes 421 acres already covered by a prior $7.5 million conservation easement purchased by the county and Snowmass Village. That easement protected Droste lands in the valley floor along Brush Creek from development.

In addition, the county spent $1.3 million on the Brush Creek Valley bike trail, linking Highway 82 to Snowmass Village, and utility customers in the area are paying the additional $8 million cost to bury electrical lines in the valley.

The expenditures have left the scenic valley largely undeveloped and have maintained a key migration corridor and habitat for the Burnt Mountain elk herd.

The latest open space acquisition offers opportunities for mountain biking, equestrian and hiking trails on the ridge – an area that few members of the public have actually seen, Will said. The area will be closed to winter use to protect wildlife, he predicted.

The impact of homes on the elk herd was a key concern during deliberations by commissioners over the proposed ridge-top development, which was to include a 3-mile road criss-crossing up the steep hillside from the valley floor.

The Droste property, originally some 926 acres that will mostly be preserved from development in its entirety with the latest deal, was originally acquired by the family in 1963, according to Peter Droste.

His parents purchased the ranch land and moved the family to the Brush Creek Valley after selling about 120 acres on Red Mountain. Aspen had been discovered after President Kennedy’s election in 1960 (the Kennedys were visitors to Aspen), prompting the relocation, Droste said.

In those days, Brush Creek Road did not extend to Highway 82, but dead-ended at the ranch, he said.

“We’re just so excited now that the public is going to use the ranch,” Droste said. “There can’t be a better solution to this whole thing.”