Economy may boost Pitkin County open space |

Economy may boost Pitkin County open space

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” At least one entity may be a winner in the real estate downturn ” Pitkin County Open Space and Trails.

It would stand to reason that overextended speculators who have vacant land with conservation value would contact the department, said the program’s director, Dale Will. Not only is the county in a position to make acquisitions, he said, but the sales could benefit the public good.

This year, the 19-year-old department has roughly $7 million to spend on land that meets open space criteria. Meanwhile, confirmed Realtor and former Pitkin County Commissioner Shellie Roy, sales of land to private citizens have slowed in the valley, alongside sales of houses and “everything else.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that since the end of this past summer, Pitkin County Open Space and Sales has seen an increase in calls from interested sellers, according to Will.

Though he was careful to note that it’s hard to make assumptions about motivations, Will attributed at least some of the rise in interested sellers to the current downturn.

“A lot of the deals we’ve done this year are people who’ve watched the credit market and decided, for whatever reason, that open space is the best option they have,” Will said.

He noted that at least one property under review ” “a very nice piece of open space” ” is directly tied to the crash of the credit market.

Unlike many would-be buyers right now, Pitkin County has money. In contrast to the more volatile open space funds in the Front Range, which are funded by sales tax, the Pitkin County Open Space real estate fund comes from property taxes, said Will.

In addition, there is a two-year lag between property valuation and open-space tax collection. So even if property values start to decline, Pitkin County will be collecting taxes based on the high valuations of the real estate boom for two more years. Such a design was deliberate, said Tim McFlynn, co-founder and current trustee of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board.

“If [land] values go down,” Will said, “there will be a year or two when we’re in a very strong position.”

And Will pointed out that in addition to securing open space, the county could end up helping, in a small way, with the credit crisis itself ” by taking property from those who are overextended and creating publicly owned assets that will appreciate forever.

“We’re not going to be buying mansions or hotels ” but if they have open land that meets the criteria we look for, we could have a little role in the bailout,” he said.

To qualify as a potential piece of open space, land must provide habitat or have scenic, recreational and/or agricultural attributes. Most of the properties the county purchases meet more than one qualification, said Will, and some have all of them.

As for the bargaining power the county may have in the downturn, Will said it is too early to tell if prices are falling. But Roy predicted the county may be able to purchase open space parcels for 2003 or 2004 prices.

McFlynn said he wasn’t surprised the county was receiving calls from interested sellers, and speculated that economic circumstances might drive “a number” of different open space transactions in the coming months. He speculated, for example, that property owners who have fishing easements or nordic skiing easements all around them might suddenly jump at a chance for liquid assets in exchange for their easements.

“It’s a great opportunity for everyone,” he said.

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