Hurdles stand in way of land swap near Carbondale |

Hurdles stand in way of land swap near Carbondale

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

CARBONDALE ” A land swap involving more than 2,000 acres of private and public land at the base of a prominent local peak might not ever come about, but even if it does it will not be for some time, perhaps years.

And it might not come about as it has been proposed by billionaire retailer Leslie Wexner, owner of a 25,000-square-foot home on Red Mountain near Aspen, as well as his full-time home in Ohio. Wexner also owns two large ranches at the base of Mount Sopris near Carbondale, and a 513-acre parcel known as the Sutey Ranch in Missouri Heights.

At the heart of the deal is Wexner’s plan to trade the Sutey ranch for 1,268 acres of land currently held by the federal Bureau of Land Management. The BLM land divides Wexner’s two holdings at the base of Mount Sopris, the former Turnbull and Jellinek spreads that together total about 3,400 acres. Wexner wants to consolidate the ranch into one contiguous holding.

“I’m kind of on the fence,” said Franz Froelicher, chair of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board of directors, at a joint meeting Tuesday with the county commissioners.

Froelicher noted that “the Sutey [pronounced shoo-tee] Ranch is a gem not to be lost” because of its value for expansion of the adjacent Red Hill recreational area ” some 3,000 acres that is managed by the nonprofit Red Hill Council as a mountain biking, hiking and equestrian playground. The area attracted some 55,000 users last year.

But Froelicher added that he needs more information about many of the details of the deal, particularly about one aspect of the land swap. It involves the Darien family near Marble, and a tiny backcountry lake that has long been shut off from public access by the Dariens’ private holdings. The Darien family wants to build a hydroelectric plant on land now held by the BLM in return for public access to the lake.

According to Chuck Downey of Redstone, the construction of the hydroelectric plant could bring considerable environmental and visual degradation to the wilderness that surrounds Rapid Creek, the proposed plant site. He suggested the county hold up that part of the swap for further study.

Several of the public officials at the meeting agreed that, at the least, there is a need for more public awareness of the proposal’s complexities, as well as input from the public at large, before any decisions can be made.

Wexner’s representatives at a meeting this week, however, pressed government officials to make a decision quickly, because Wexner is hoping to submit a bill to the U.S. Congress next fall authorizing the land swap, as required in all such swaps involving federal property.

“We can’t afford the delay” that might result from a lengthy public review process, said Andy Wiessner, head of the Western Lands Group, a consultant firm representing Wexner’s interests. Wiessner also said the swap, as proposed, could prevent the development of more than 300 homes in the lower valley, both at Sutey Ranch and on Wexner’s property.

Wexner has offered to place conservation easements over his ranch lands, preventing any development with the exception of a single, 3,000-square-foot house with about the same amount of ancillary ranch buildings at some point in the future.

The deal has the support of numerous area governments, including the towns of Carbondale and Marble, as well as the Red Hill Council, the Aspen Valley Land Trust, a local mountain biking association and numerous other groups, many of which spoke in favor of the proposal at Tuesday’s meeting.

But despite the support, some county commissioners and the county’s open space and trails board members voiced concerns and, in some cases, reluctance to go along with the entire deal.

Others felt differently.

“I don’t think it’s that complex at all,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield. “I mean, come on, let’s get with it.”

He said the proposal satisfied many of the county’s stated public goals in terms of conservation of land, preservation of wildlife habitat and other issues, and is supported by a broad range of area nonprofits and governments.

“Let’s not get bogged down in false roadblocks,” he said.

No formal votes were taken at the hearing. Closing discussion centered around obtaining more information, as well as visits to the various parcels of land involved, before any decisions are made.

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