Fate of Aspen’s Verena Mallory Trail unsettled
It remains uncertain whether a short, popular trail on Smuggler Mountain will be closed and reclaimed June 1 after 23 years of public use by hikers and mountain bikers.
Aspen Valley Land Trust, a nonprofit land-conservation group, says it must close the Verena Mallory Trail on June 1 to uphold “legal and ethical obligations” in the agreement made when it received the land from Fritz and Fabi Benedict. However, the land trust said it is willing to have a judge settle the issue. The Pitkin County government would have to initiate the legal action, the land trust said. If it does by June 1, the land trust won’t close the trail, pending the decision.
The Pitkin County Board of Commissioners held a closed-door session on the matter Tuesday.
“There is certainly county interest in trying to keep the trail open,” said Dale Will, executive director of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program. He attended the executive session but was cautious in what he would divulge about it. County officials want to explore with the land trust ways of “potentially” resolving the status of the trail, he said.
Will declined comment on whether the county commissioners will file the legal work required for a declaratory judgment.
Martha Cochran, executive director of the land trust, said she was told Pitkin County is still weighing its options.
“My understanding is they didn’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” she said.
The land trust’s board of directors unanimously voted April 15 to uphold its position to reclaim the one-quarter-mile loop trail — unless the county seeks a legal decision.
“The (the land trust) board would not object to Pitkin County, as the entity which may have legal standing, initiating a declaratory judgment action regarding interpretation of the donation agreements,” the land trust wrote in an April 21 letter to Pitkin County. “(The land trust) would consent to and willingly participate in such a legal action.
“The (the land trust) board is not willing to participate in mediation, negotiation or further discussions that would not have a binding legal outcome or that would imply that legal agreements are negotiable,” the letter continued.
The crux of the issue is different interpretations of Fritz Benedict’s intent and wording of documents related to the land. Benedict announced in a newspaper article in September 1991 that he was creating a then-unnamed trail as an alternative to a steep section of the South Hunter Creek Trail. Benedict wanted the south trail to ease demand for use of the North Hunter Creek Trail, which was in the thick of an ownership dispute. Benedict said he hoped that hikers and cyclists would find the south route more attractive if there was an alternative to the steep, rocky section of the established route.
Mountain bikers and hikers embraced the trail in 1992, and it was named the Verena Malloy Trail in November 1993 in memory of a young Aspen girl who had died.
Although Fritz Benedict created the trail and made his intentions public, the Benedicts’ donation of land that contains the trail to Park Trust, a predecessor of Aspen Valley Land Trust, included the stipulation that there would be no trails or roads on the property.
The land trust interprets that to mean the trial that Fritz Benedict created was illegitimate. It’s not a bias against recreation uses of property, according to Cochran. It’s a matter of the land trust maintaining its credibility and honoring the intent of a donor.
“It’s what the documents say,” Cochran said. “It just says what it says.”
But Will noted that the Benedicts gave the land and trail to Park Trust. The name is significant, he said, because it hints at intent.
“Their original mission was to accept park land in Pitkin County,” Will said. Benedict also was active in establishing Park Trust, which morphed into Aspen Valley Land Trust later in the 1990s,
Will said the Benedicts also agreed to certain public rights when the parcel was donated as a park and was subdivided from developable land the family sold.
“Pitkin County is interested because there were public rights that were identified in the grant to the land trust,” he said.
The difference of opinion is over how those rights apply to the trail, Will said.
Cochran said the land trust’s board of directors believes it is best to put the legal documents before a judge and say, “Tell us what you believe this means.” That would take the “politics and personalities” out of the debate, she said.
The issue has captured the attention of trail users. Proponents of keeping the trail open created a Verena Mallory Trail page on Facebook last year. The Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association also has weighed in, most recently with a letter Monday from Executive Director Mike Pritchard to the county commissioners.
“The Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association respects Aspen Valley Land Trust’s mission and understands that they must rely on the documents received from the original Park Trust Ltd. entity to determine the donor’s original intent,” Pritchard wrote. “However, the facts of this case, especially Fritz’s clear intention in building the trail, must be taken into account before the public loses the trail through closure and rehabilitation as is currently planned.”
The issue could be solved by judicial review, a prescriptive easement — since the public has used it for so long — or condemnation, the letter said.
“Whatever the solution may be, we are hopeful that (the land trust’s) excellent reputation will remain unharmed and that the trail using public will not lose access to this well-loved trail,” Pritchard wrote.
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