Feds offer El Jebel land to Pitkin, Eagle counties
November 23, 2011
ASPEN – Pitkin and Eagle counties have been offered the right of first refusal to purchase 68 acres in El Jebel from the U.S. Forest Service. The parcel includes about 40 acres of sensitive land along the Roaring Fork River; the price has yet to be determined.
Pitkin County commissioners, who have previously expressed reluctance at spending county open space dollars to conserve what is already public land, were informed of the Forest Service’s action Tuesday.
According to a Nov. 18 letter from the supervisor’s office of the White River National Forest to County Manager Jon Peacock, the counties have 60 days to jointly indicate whether they have any interest in buying the property, which is the remaining piece of the former Mount Sopris Tree Farm. The counties acquired the rest of the former tree farm from the Forest Service through a land exchange in 1994; Crown Mountain Park and the Eagle County Community Center, a satellite government office building, have been developed there.
“We would have preferred the Forest Service kept the riparian area in public ownership rather than transfer it from public ownership to public ownership,” Peacock said Tuesday.
Nonetheless, the counties formally expressed their interest in buying the 40 riparian acres last summer after the agency indicated it intended to sell the midvalley property in order to help fund facilities elsewhere, including redevelopment of its Aspen Ranger District site.
The Forest Service would entertain a proposal from the counties to buy the entire parcel or just part of it – the 40 acres on the lower bench near the river, for example, according to Kevin Warner, conveyance program specialist at the White River headquarters in Glenwood Springs.
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About 28 acres on an upper bench, which includes a pasture for horses, a hay field and a small housing complex for employees, is considered the developable part of the property. Eagle County officials have not expressed interest in protecting that piece, Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards said.
The Forest Service letter indicates the counties would be required to enter into a conservation easement to permanently protect the riparian nature and botanical diversity of the land along the river. The same restriction would be imposed on any buyer, Warner said.
“It would not matter who was to purchase it, whether it was the counties or anyone else,” he said.
Federally owned wetlands and floodplain areas can’t be sold for development, according to Warner.
“Pretty much the entire thing is floodplain,” he said of the lower bench.
That suggests the land is protected from development even if the counties don’t buy it – something county commissioners were wondering Tuesday.
If the Forest Service accepts a proposal from the counties, the purchase price will be the “fair market value” determined by an appraisal to be paid for by the counties.
The Forest Service has scheduled an open house on the proposed sale of the property on Dec. 1 from 4:30-6:30 p.m. at the El Jebel Community Center.