Eight cases will end tree-farm land feud
February 12, 2002
The U.S. government and a group of Aspenites have agreed to a risky procedure to resolve an 8-year-old dispute sparked by the Mount Sopris Tree Farm land swap.
In an unusual pretrial agreement, lawyers on both sides have decided against taking all 51 lawsuits connected to the ownership dispute to trial.
Instead, they selected eight cases that will be used as litmus tests to solve the entire issue, according to a court order issued recently by a federal district judge in Denver.
It’s close to an all-or-nothing move for both sides.
Gary Wright, the attorney for the citizens, said the eight cases are a good representative sample of all the lawsuits. Their resolution will settle “any and all issues” in the fight, he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Hegarty couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.
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The roots of the fight reach back to 1994, when Pitkin County traded 267 patented mining claims totaling 1,258 acres to the U.S. Forest Service. In return, Pitkin and Eagle counties acquired 125 acres at the tree farm from the feds.
The land swap prevented the tree farm from becoming another midvalley subdivision. The Forest Service ceased operations there years ago and was willing to get rid of the land.
The swap also allowed Pitkin County to get rid of mining claims that it couldn’t properly oversee, including some that it suspected had clouded titles of ownership. Many of the mining claims used in the swap were on Richmond Ridge, south of Aspen Mountain. However, they are scattered all over the mountains.
As soon as the swap was announced in 1994, objections were raised by 35 Aspen residents and people with ties to town. They claimed Pitkin County traded land that they owned.
The 35 residents filed 51 lawsuits disputing ownership of 62 mining claims. The suits were filed in federal district court in Denver in November 2000, right before the statute of limitations expired.
The citizens claimed they had better title to the land than Pitkin County and, therefore, the federal government. While the cases have different details, most of them generally allege that Pitkin County followed flawed processes to acquire the land when the owners defaulted on property taxes shortly after the turn of the 20th century – when Aspen was close to dying.
Resolution of the cases probably cannot threaten the 1994 land swap. About half of the Mount Sopris Tree Farm is being developed by Eagle County for community uses.
A community center and county office building have been constructed and will open this spring in a five-acre corner of the property. Several ballfields are also being created.
However, losing the cases could prove costly for the governments.
The terms of the trade declared that the counties are liable for 50 percent of the feds’ legal expenses over $240,000 in litigating the ownership disputes. The counties must also provide cash or land of equal fair market value for any property that is found to belong to someone else.
If the government loses the eight cases providing the litmus tests, it might have to “cure” all 51 cases.
The alleged landowners are taking a risk that the eight cases selected fairly represent their issues. Wright said he selected some of the cases, the U.S. attorney’s office selected some, and a couple were mutually agreed upon.
The eight cases probably won’t proceed to trial until the fall and winter of 2003-04, he said.
The plaintiffs in the cases that will be litigated and the mining claims in the disputes include:
Gaard Moses and the Alice mining claim; Collin Chapman and the Puzzler mining claim; Michael Dolan and the Frankling mining claim; Rick Deane and the Ellis mining claim. Nancy Oliphant and the Reveille mining claim; David and Darby Clancy and the Annie Hayford mining claim; and Jim Wingers and the Snowflake mining claim.
The Aspen Times couldn’t determine the plaintiffs or the mining claim in dispute in one of the cases.