Emma ranch gamble looks like solid bet
A businessman’s gamble to buy a ranch to protect it from widespread development appears to have a good chance of paying off.Tom Clark said he has reached an agreement in principle with the Pitkin County Trails and Open Space program to sell conservation easements to most of the 560 acres of the Fender Ranch, which he acquired in November.However, Clark cautioned, it’s not a done deal. “None of it happens until the Pitkin County commissioners say it happens,” he said.And because he didn’t want to jinx the potential deal, he declined to discuss details.Dale Will, director of the open space program, confirmed his board is interested in helping preserve the Fender Ranch.
“I have a package that we are happy with that I will take to the commissioners,” Will said.Clark scrambled to buy the 560 acres in the heart of Emma in November. His purchase came after a developer’s proposal to buy the property fell through. Clark feared if he didn’t act another developer would swoop in.Pat and William Fender owned the ranch for 45 years. They ran cattle there with their son, Willy, and his wife, Fran, but they wanted out of the business.Clark, who owns Clark’s Market in Aspen and Basalt as well as other locations in Colorado and Utah, lives on a 120-acre spread next to the Fender Ranch. He said he wanted to preserve the historic agriculture operation as well as wildlife habitat and vistas of the Fender property.Clark teamed with Aspen-based developer Tom McCloskey in the $4.75 million purchase. He said from the beginning it was his intent to sell the ranch or conservation easements to the open space program.The move was risky for Clark. If the open space board wasn’t interested or couldn’t come up with the funds, McCloskey would develop Fender Ranch to recoup his investment – and Clark would be a catalyst for the development he wanted to avoid.
Will said the Fender Ranch would be an attractive addition to the open space program. “It’s the largest piece of undeveloped land in Emma,” he said. It’s also one of the last working cattle ranches in the county.Parts of the ranch are visible from Highway 82 and throughout the midvalley, Will noted. So development would ruin the unblemished vistas.The land also provides an important link for wildlife moving between Light Hill, located between Old Snowmass and Emma, and the Crown, located between El Jebel and Mount Sopris.Clark said he and McCloskey would retain a historic ranch house on the Fender Ranch, along with 35 acres of property for redevelopment of one home. They would also keep two 20-acre parcels on the east side of Sopris Creek Road. Those parcels are separated from the bulk of the ranch by the road.Those parcels would be developed and cattle would no longer graze along Sopris Creek, where they have destabilized the stream bank and trashed riparian vegetation.
As part of the agreement, Clark said he would also place a conservation easement on about 110 acres of his 120-acre ranch. That would leave about 590 acres of ranch land preserved from development. When conservation easements are sold, operations like ranching can continue but development rights are extinguished.Clark said discussions thus far have gone better than he hoped.”The open space people are really good to work with,” he said. “Personally I couldn’t be happier with the progress.”Will said the proposal will likely go before the county commissioners within the next two months.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org