Land trust delays closure of Aspen’s Verena Mallory Trail
Aspen Valley Land Trust has agreed to delay the closing of a popular hiking and biking trail on the shoulder of Smuggler Mountain until Sept. 1 at the request of Pitkin County.
The land trust informed the county’s open space program this week that it won’t close the Verena Mallory Trail as scheduled Monday. It planned to permanently close the trail and reclaim the quarter-mile, jug-handle-shaped loop off of the South Hunter Creek Trail.
The county sought the delay so that the two sides could discuss legal options to resolve a difference of opinion about the trail.
Aspen Valley Land Trust officials say that when they did a standard check last year of the documents regarding the 1993 donation of 11 acres of land from Fritz and Fabi Benedict, they discovered that no trails or roads could be built and any existing routes had to be removed. They said they had “legal and ethical obligations” to enforce the terms of the land donation. Aspen Valley Land Trust officials initially planned to close the trail in the fall but granted a delay until Monday. Now they are granting a second delay.
The county government and trail advocates contend that Fritz Benedict’s intentions were misunderstood. They noted that he created the trail in fall 1991 to relieve pressure on the South Hunter Creek Trail. The land that contains the trail was donated in 1993 after Benedict created the trail, so he clearly wanted it to be used, according to trail proponents.
The trail restriction hasn’t been enforced in 23 years. Meanwhile, the route has become popular with mountain bikers and hikers. It is an alternative to a particularly steep section of the South Hunter Creek Trail.
Aspen Valley Land Trust Executive Director Martha Cochran said many land contributions to the conservancy require that the land remain as it is at the time of the gift. The documents related to the Benedict gift state “no roads or trails of any kind shall ever be established or permitted to remain.”
“It’s really the crux of the deal that makes it different (from other land gifts),” Cochran said.
The county and the Aspen Valley Land Trust have agreed to meet to appoint representatives to discuss the legal options. Aspen Valley Land Trust’s letter to the county suggested the meeting should be held as soon as “all parties agree to proceed in a timely manner to determine a course of action by August 1.”
Cochran said the land trust isn’t opposed to the county going to court to get a declaratory judgment on the trail. Another option is for the county to condemn the trail.
“I think the county is hesitant to initiate a legal action against a nonprofit,” Cochran said.
The land trust feels legal action is the only way to resolve the issue. The two sides wouldn’t have to wage a long, drawn-out court battle, Cochran said. Instead, they could present the documents tied to the land gift and the facts regarding Benedict’s creation of the trail and ask a judge for a decision on intent. If the county agrees to go that route, the land trust wants everyone interested in the issue to agree to live with the decision.
The Verena Mallory Park will remain open regardless of how the trail dispute shakes out, Cochran said.
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