Lawmakers revive open space hurdle | AspenTimes.com
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Lawmakers revive open space hurdle

Janet Urquhart

A controversial bill that could hamper Aspen’s ability to acquire open space on Smuggler Mountain is again headed for debate by state lawmakers.

The legislation has the support of Smuggler landowner George “Wilk” Wilkinson, who said Thursday he has e-mailed a number of lawmakers to explain his concerns about government’s ability to acquire property outside its borders through condemnation.

“The deck is stacked against the landowner any way you slice and dice it,” he said.

House Bill 1203 was originally aimed at cracking down on cities that use their power of eminent domain, or condemnation, to seize private property only to sell it to developers and big businesses.

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Tacked onto the bill for the second time is an amendment that would bar municipalities from condemning land beyond their boundaries for open space, recreation and similar purposes.

It’s a tactic Aspen could use in an attempt to acquire about 136 acres of old Smuggler mining claims that belong to Wilkinson, though the City Council has made no decision to go that route.

The legislation would also prevent Aspen from contributing financially to the acquisition of Smuggler through condemnation by Pitkin County.

A similar amendment to the bill was withdrawn by its sponsor, Rep. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, earlier this month when the bill was sent back to the House Information and Technology Committee.

On Wednesday, the committee voted 7-4 to approve a new version of the amendment and then voted to pass the bill as a whole and send it back to the full House.

The redrafted amendment does allow what’s called “extraterritorial condemnation” when both the landowner whose property is to be condemned and the government in which the property is located consent to the condemnation proceedings.

In such a “friendly condemnation,” a property owner is willing to sell, but the parties are unable to agree on a price, so it is established in court.

“I don’t know if I would jump in as a willing participant on that,” Wilkinson said. “A willing participant is someone who agrees on the price.”

The city made an undisclosed offer for Wilkinson’s landholdings last year after obtaining an appraisal that placed its value at $8.1 million. A potential buyer who had an option on the property at the time turned it down, according to Wilkinson. “I never saw it,” he said.

But Wilkinson said the city’s appraisal put the land’s value on the low end of its potential worth.

“You can’t buy a Rolls-Royce for the price of a Volkswagen,” he said. “That’s always been the issue between the city, the county and myself – they don’t recognize the true value of Smuggler.”

Local governments’ best bet to preserve the Smuggler lands from development would be to purchase a conservation easement on the property, rather than buying the land outright, Wilkinson contends.

“That’s what they can afford to buy,” he said, expressing hope that a deal can be negotiated that satisfies all the parties involved.

A house site for Wilkinson on his property must be part of any agreement to preserve the rest of it, he added.

It’s not Smuggler, though, but a bucolic swath of open land outside Telluride that is at the center of the raucous debate over the bill’s amendment. Critics have labeled it special-interest legislation aimed directly at halting Telluride’s attempt to acquire some 570 acres known as the Valley Floor.

The town of Telluride directed its attorney this week to initiate condemnation proceedings, but the bill’s amendment is retroactive to Jan. 1, meaning it could still derail Telluride’s plan.

Pushing the amendment are representatives for the San Miguel Valley Corp., which owns the Valley Floor. Appraisals done on behalf of the town and San Miguel have produced widely divergent conclusions about the property’s worth.

Meanwhile, Rep. Mitchell has pulled his support from the amendment, which produced a hailstorm of opposition in the first go-round that he said detracted from attention on the original bill, of which he is the sponsor.

Now sponsoring the amendment are Rep. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Carl Miller, a Leadville Democrat.

Backers of the amendment say no city should have the power to seize property outside its borders.

Cadman said e-mails he has received from Telluride residents have convinced him something has to be done to stop such actions by any town or city.

“If you want a park, buy it,” he said.

Rep. Gregg Rippy, whose district encompasses Aspen and Pitkin County, could not be reached Thursday for comment regarding his position on the latest amendment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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