Land swap policy could hurt Pitkin County, expert says
October 6, 2010
ASPEN – Hard and fast rules on land swaps in Pitkin County could inhibit future trades that benefit the county, warned an expert who has helped broker such exchanges on behalf of the county in the past.
Adam Poe, president of Western Land Group, was one of a panel of speakers convened Tuesday at The Aspen Institute to address federal land exchanges in general, and a proposed county policy in particular, at a joint meeting of county commissioners and the Open Space and Trails board of trustees.
The county has been a beneficiary of federal land exchanges that brought more than 7,300 acres into public hands since the mid-1990s, Poe said, while 93 acres left federal ownership.
Two congressionally approved exchanges – for the Ryan parcel near Ashcroft and for the Mount Sopris Tree Farm – might not have been possible under the proposed policy, he cautioned.
“Don’t lose track of the benefits that exchanges have brought to this county, because they’re real and their demonstrable,” Poe said.
Poe’s company was also involved in the proposed Two Shoes-Sutey trade, involving Bureau of Land Management property in Pitkin County and private land in Garfield County. The county refused to endorse the swap, proposed by landowners Leslie and Abigail Wexner; the couple wanted county support before seeking congressional approval of the deal. Talks broke off, and the exchange has not advanced.
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That local support is important, but not legally required, said Doug Young, state policy director for U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.
“[On] any piece of legislation, we strive to get as much local support as we can,” he said.
Young urged the county, if it adopts a policy, to make sure it doesn’t conflict with federal law.
The proposed policy, for example, calls for no net loss of acreage in the county or of other publicly owned lands in the Roaring Fork watershed. The feds don’t look for equal acreage, but equal value in land swaps, Young said.
The county’s policy, which is under consideration but has not been adopted, also calls for a net public financial gain in the county, as determined by an appraisal that takes into account the value of the property that becomes private by virtue of the already-private lands around it.
In the Two Shoes-Sutey swap, for example, the Wexners sought to fold BLM land into their existing ranch holdings. The county maintained the BLM land was far more valuable to the Wexners than it would be to anyone else, and that the appraisal used for a federal land swap wouldn’t take that into account.
The appraiser isn’t barred from considering that value, Poe countered, but Denver-based appraiser Mark Weston, of Hunsperger and Weston Ltd., said an appraisal of market value on the parcels in play is the standard practice. Then, after the swap occurs, if the newly privatized parcel is to be protected with a conservation easement, it is appraised at the higher value that results from its inclusion into the larger property. The landowner can receive a tax benefit from the donation of that value, he explained.
“It may not be a bad idea to enact a policy,” Weston advised. “It needs to be flexible.”
Janine Blaeloch, founder and director of Western Lands Project, a watchdog group that monitors land exchanges between the federal government and private parties, urged the county to seek an assessment of the environmental impacts when a congressional land exchange is proposed. That’s a process that would occur if a federal agency such as the Forest Service or BLM was evaluating the exchange rather than Congress, she said.
“The problem with land trades is they are almost invariably called, by the proponents, win-win deals and they are not,” Blaeloch said. “They are almost always win-lose deals.”
Ed Marston, former editor and publisher of High Country News, a Paonia-based publication that focuses on public policy, environmental issues and culture in the West, described a land swap in Gunnison County that some residents of Delta County apparently consider a losing proposition for the public. The exchange has received national media attention after Marston called attention to it.
The deal did not initially receive the kind of attention that Pitkin County put on the Two Shoes-Sutey exchange, he said, and might have slipped through without the public having any real idea of what was happening.
The Open Space and Trails Board has reworked the proposed Pitkin County policy a number of times. There was no hint Tuesday as to what would occur next with the proposal, though Commissioner Jack Hatfield called for more flexible guidelines.
He did not side with his fellow commissioners in their opposition to the Two Shoes-Sutey deal.