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Land dispute causing commuter headache

Brent Gardner-Smith

A $7.8 million difference of opinion about the value of a piece of land is slowing traffic on Highway 82 near Buttermilk.

And the fight may drag out highway construction several months past the original October completion date.

Craig R. Stapleton of Greenwich, Conn., believes his 23 acres of undeveloped land between Buttermilk Mountain Ski Area and the Aspen Airport is worth $9.6 million.

The Colorado Department of Transportation and Pitkin County, which have jointly condemned the land as part of the Highway 82 improvement project, have appraised the property at $1.8 million. The county assessor currently shows the land’s value at $1 million.

Stapleton’s unwillingness to accept the $1.8 million has blocked CDOT from taking possession of the land. As a result, the road contractor was unable to shift the entrance to Buttermilk off Highway 82 and onto a newly created stretch of Owl Creek Road.

Had the new Buttermilk entrance been built as planned, there may have been no need to erect two traffic lights near the ski area, according to Ralph Trapani, CDOT project manager for Highway 82.

“If we had the access off of Owl Creek, I’m not sure we would have put the lights up,” said Trapani.

And those lights have been the source of many headaches for Aspen commuters.

“The traffic light on SH 82 at the current entrance to the Buttermilk Ski Area is creating severe traffic operation problems and congestion on SH 82 due to its proximity to another traffic light for a relocated [Owl Creek Road],” the Colorado attorney general argued in a recent pleading in the case on behalf of CDOT. “Those lights need to be consolidated into one in order to alleviate this situation as soon as possible.”

CDOT’s ultimate plan for the Buttermilk and Owl Creek Road area includes creating one intersection, with one stoplight, where the new portion of Owl Creek Road meets Highway 82.

According to CDOT’s plans for Buttermilk, a skier coming from Aspen would first turn left onto Owl Creek Road, and then turn left again into the ski area parking lot.

Dave Myler, Stapleton’s local land use attorney, apologized for any delays the dispute may have caused commuters, but said it was important for Mr. Stapleton to defend the value of his property.

“We feel pretty comfortable with our appraisal [of $9.6 million],” he said.

It’s not unusual for a landowner and CDOT to disagree over the value of land that has been condemned. When it happens, a landowner typically will let CDOT take possession of the land and agree to fight over the value of the land later.

“Seventy-five percent of the time we are able to negotiate,” said Trapani. “Usually the differences aren’t that great.”

But when they are, landowners can block CDOT from taking possession of the land. Then CDOT usually seeks an “immediate possession” hearing before a judge so the agency can proceed with its plans.

“As far as I know, this is only the second parcel on the whole Highway 82 project that is going to a possession hearing,” Trapani said.

A possession hearing for the Stapleton land is currently set for June 7, but CDOT is trying to get it moved back to April 23. Trapani is concerned that the later date will continue to delay traffic, and that it will prevent Ames, the highway contractor, from proceeding as scheduled.

Ames stopped work on the Buttermilk section of Highway 82 before Christmas, for what CDOT said was a planned winter break. It plans to resume work in April, but may not be able to do much if the dispute over the Stapleton property is not resolved.

And if that’s the case, the contractor can begin fining CDOT for the delay, and the entire project would likely be pushed back several months.

Last fall, Stapleton agreed to let CDOT take possession of enough of his land to widen the highway and create the new section of Owl Creek Road. He reserved the right to continue debating the value of his land.

The state and the county want to use the Stapleton property for a variety of purposes, including new roads that will access the ski area and the West Buttermilk neighborhood; for ski area and commuter parking; for a transit station suitable for light rail; for open space and scenic considerations; and to prevent development under the flight path of the airport.

Stapleton’s attorneys claim those reasons aren’t good enough to condemn the land, saying that the “decision to condemn has been made fraudulently,” that CDOT has “grossly undervalued” the property, and that the agency is working in bad faith since “.substantial portions of the property which [CDOT and Pitkin County] seek to condemn will be used by private parties for private purposes, including but not limited to, the operators of the Buttermilk Ski Area.”

The Aspen Skiing Co. currently leases a portion of the Stapleton property for use as a parking lot – the dirt lot to the right of the entrance road. The Skico’s current master plan for the ski area shows a 450-space parking lot on a combination of Skico land and the Stapleton property.

The company is not helping CDOT pay for the land and expects to ultimately lease the land from Pitkin County.


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