Experts to assign value to Wilk’s land
Sometime early next year, a team of experts is expected to produce an answer to a long-debated question: How much is Wilk’s land worth?The city of Aspen is spending about $300,000 on a comprehensive appraisal of George Wilkinson’s Smuggler Mountain landholdings as the first step toward, perhaps, trying to acquire it as open space.Before the city can make Wilkinson a legitimate offer, it needs to know what more than 200 acres of land on the mountain rising up on Aspen’s northeast flank is worth as developable property, according to City Attorney John Worcester.The appraised value would also be necessary if local governments were to attempt to acquire the property through condemnation, he said.”My task was to put a team together to come up with an appraisal that would be a fair market value of his property,” Worcester said. “That will allow the government officials to decide whether or not to make him an offer.”I have no idea if the offers made in the past were even remotely close to the true value of the land,” he added. “I don’t know if Wilk knows.”Pitkin County reportedly offered Wilkinson $10 million for his collection of mining claims at one point. In 2001, Wilkinson told The Aspen Times he offered to sell his holdings to the county in the late 1980s for $20 million.The land is bisected by several roads, including Smuggler Mountain Road, a popular route for recreation heading up the mountain or into the Hunter Creek Valley.However, there is much more to Wilkinson’s property than what can be seen from the road, according to Worcester. He spent a day and a half traipsing around Smuggler with Wilkinson and the rest of the appraisal team.”There are some areas that are just unbelievable,” Worcester told the council recently. “You can just imagine what can be done with it if we acquire it, or if we don’t. It’s really an incredible parcel of land.”What can be done up there has long been a contentious issue between Wilkinson and Pitkin County. At one point, the county tore down Wilkinson’s house, built without approval.Wilkinson has tried repeatedly to develop his property and at one point pursued a “takings” lawsuit against the county, claiming the county’s land-use regulations and policies had, in effect, denied his rights to reasonable use of his property.He later sought a new trial, claiming county officials had conspired to thwart his development efforts in order to keep Smuggler as open space without paying for it. Both court actions were unsuccessful.The county and Wilkinson have also battled over whether the roads that cross his land are public roads. That issue appears headed for trial in U.S. District Court next year unless the parties reach a settlement, according to Debbie Quinn, assistant county manager.Meanwhile, the city has put together a team of outside consultants to objectively determine the “highest and best use” of Wilkinson’s Smuggler lands and then put a value on it.A local engineering firm is evaluating the roads and conducting some extensive survey work; a Denver law firm is handling the title work to determine what exactly Wilkinson and his various offshoots own; another attorney is studying water rights; a Montana mining consultant has evaluated Wilkinson’s mineral rights; and a local planner has been contracted to determine how the property could be developed, given the road access, slopes, available water and a host of other factors.Chase & Co. of Grand Junction is the appraisal firm that will put a value on the land after all of the work is complete.Sunny Vann, of Vann and Associates in Aspen, is the planning consultant, hired to figure out how the collection of mining claims could be developed.”After you figure out what he owns, and your survey tells you where the flat areas are, and the engineer tells you where you can get roads, then you need a planner to figure out the best use,” Worcester said.”At some point, we’re going to go to the council and say, this is what our experts say it’s worth. What do you want to do?” he said.Aspen voters approved an additional .5 percent sales tax dedicated to open space and trails in November 2000. The potential purchase of the Smuggler property ? possibly as a joint city/county venture ? came up during the campaign.Such a purchase might also entail a public vote, authorizing the city to use its open space dollars to borrow money, Worcester said.The terms of the ballot question creating the new tax allow the city to increase its debt by up to $38 million, with a maximum repayment cost of $91 million, to fund open space purchases and other permitted expenditures. The debt would be paid using the open space tax revenues, which are also funding the appraisal.”If the community could find a way to purchase this property, it would be a real gem,” Worcester said. “I think the community will have a decision to make and will hopefully put to rest an issue that has been out there for a number of years now.”[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is email@example.com]
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